Saturday, August 23, 2008

Sitting and waiting--part 2

A few months back I posted a note on my observation that there are lots of Asian women who sit for hours doing nothing but waiting while their male partners play poker. Why this practice is so heavily skewed demographically towards Asians remains a mystery to me.

Anyway, I was amused by seeing the above-pictured two men, who did not appear to know each other, sitting in adjacent seats at the Excalibur last night, each accompanied by a bored-looking female partner, sitting slightly behind, doing nothing--not reading, not interacting meaningfully with their menfolk, not watching TV, not paying attention to the poker game. Just sitting.

I want to ask these women, "Why are you here? Are you actually enjoying this? Don't you have anything else you'd rather be doing?" But I don't, of course. I just wonder.

Excalibur's electronic tables--first impressions

Let me jump to the conclusion first: I ended up liking these tables quite a bit more than I thought I would. I expected to feel essentially neutral about them, with the pros and cons basically balancing each other out. In fact, a couple of acquaintances who talked to me there fairly early in the evening asked me what I thought, and that's basically what I told them--I didn't mind the newfangled tables, but didn't love them, either. As the hours went on, however, my impression became more favorable. By the end of my first session, my assessment was this: If I walked into a poker room in which there was an open seat at each of two tables of the same game and same stakes, one a traditional dealer-run game with cards and chips, and the other a PokerPro table, I'd have them put me into the latter.

May all my dealer friends forgive me.

And, no, I'm not being paid anything by anybody for this opinion. (I tried to score a free PokerPro hat, and was told that they were all out. That's as close as I came to any sort of bribe or compensation.)

The official announcement had put the opening at 6:00 p.m. I arrived at about 5:45, and there were already two full tables going, so obviously they got underway early. I had to wait in a line for about ten minutes before I could even enter the room. I found the sign-up process needlessly cumbersome and time-consuming. First I had to give them my MGM card and driver's license, select a PIN, pick a nickname that the system would display for me, and thus get entered into the system. Then I had to go wait in another line in order to put money in the account just created. As it turned out, for some reason the account creation process hadn't worked right, so they made me go through the whole MGM card/driver's license/PIN selection/nickname rigamarole AGAIN, which seriously annoyed me. Then it was back to the cashier with $200 cash. I had to sign a stupid receipt of some sort for that to work. Then I had to get in yet ANOTHER line to swipe my card at an automated kiosk and sign up for the games I wanted.

Cashing out was a pain, too, involving signing another receipt.

Probably due to opening-day glitches, they seemed to have no idea where there were open seats. Presumably, a person at the central desk can see this instantly on a monitor, but they sure weren't acting as if they could. Instead, a woman was constantly running between tables to see where there were open seats. When I signed up for a $1-2 NLHE game, I was about 8th on the list. But since I hadn't been hearing names called out, it wasn't clear to me how I was to be notified when it was my turn. So I asked somebody, and was told they had a seat open. I pointed out that there were a bunch of people ahead of me on the list, and they said to never mind that. I still have no clue what that whole mess was about.

I was one of ten people to start up a new game (so perhaps all of the other people ahead of me on the list were also among those seated). It was slow going at first, as everybody struggled a bit to figure out how to take the actions they wanted. But after maybe ten hands, it felt pretty comfortable.

After half an hour, we were clicking along pretty fast. In fact, speed is one of the main advantages of the tables. It offers on-the-fly session statistics, so I don't have to guess at it. Neglecting the first hour, when everybody was learning the system, we consistently got 45-50 hands per hour. Standard for traditional games is something like 36 hands per hour. It's not a night-and-day difference, but it's not insignificant; one-third more hands per hour should translate proportionately to that much more profit per hour for the better players.

My impression was that the chief time savings were not in the actual play of the hands, but the clearance time between hands. It may be that most of the time advantage comes from not having to stop for dealer changes, tray fills, making change, correcting dealer errors, etc.

The press release had said that there would be a number of big-name poker pros at the grand opening. The only recognizable person I saw was David Sklansky, who did not appear to have any underage and/or developmentally disabled young women with him. Perhaps I just overlooked them. You can see him in the second photo above, standing next to my table, chatting with Michael Hamai, "LasVegasMichael," site administrator for, who happened to be seated at the same table I was.

We were also graced by a visit from the 33rd-best razz player in the world. F-Train is correct that I failed to recognize him at first, for which I was mightily embarrassed. I knew the face was familiar, but couldn't place where I knew him from. Then again, we had met only once before, and that for maybe 30 seconds a few months back, although we exchanged about a million IMs over the course of the WSOP. By the way, while I'm talking about him, see his interesting take on the newly opened Hard Rock poker room, for an opinion dramatically different from my own.

The PokerPro interface is pretty straightforward. You touch buttons for "call $_______," fold, or all in (see fourth photo above). To prevent errors, you then have to hit a "confirm" button. You can clear it before that, if you have made a mistake. If you want to raise, you click on a row of buttons with chip amounts. This is, I think, the most clumsy part of the interface. A numeric keypad would be much better, IMHO. For example, one time the pot was $36. I decided to bet 2/3 of that, which was $24. That required hitting the $5 button four times and the $1 four times--ridiculously inefficient to require eight button presses to enter the amount of a bet.

Some people apparently had difficulty getting the screen to respond to touches with their fingers, and instead used the corner of their MGM card. I had no such problem.

Looking at one's cards requires touching the screen on the icon/image of the face-down cards (see photos above). Your cards will be readily visible to players on either side of you if you don't cup your hand around that spot. One guy next to me was just tapping the image with his MGM card, and I could see his hole cards as plain as day. I advised him to change his technique, and he did. There's nothing about this that is much different from what happens with real cards. There's almost always at the table at least one person who just lifts his cards off the table to look at them, without the slightest thought or worry about who else might be able to see them. (Some of these people do so, I think, because they are used to home games with paper-based cards, which don't take well to bending, and they just can't convince themselves that good-quality plastic casino cards really aren't harmed when you just lift a corner for a peek.)

There is an "options" menu (first photo above). Here you can view session stats, move more money from your account onto the table, quit, sit out temporarily for a break, agree to always chop the blinds, have the straddle option turned on or off, and a bunch of other stuff.

They had a few technical glitches last night. First, the system was taking a rake even if a pre-flop raise went uncalled. Players objected to this, being used to the "no flop, no drop" practice. The PokerTek guys apologized profusely, said this was a set-up error on their part, and they would be correcting it as soon as they could shut the system down for tweaking. Apparently that's not something they could adjust while it was running. (No rake was taken if the blinds just chopped.) At one of the tables, one card reader couldn't accept any cards, so that seat had to remain unoccupied. At my table, we kept having the game suddenly paused for no apparent reason. After the third or fourth time, they traced the problem to the player on my right. The system has a built-in anti-tampering lock, much like the "tilt" mechanism on a pinball machine. The console on this guy's seat was a bit loose in its fit to the table, and when he bumped it with his knee (he was a tall dude), it would lock the game down. Again, this sort of thing is probably inevitable on opening day, and I'm sure they'll get it all fixed.

There is a rabbit-hunting option. I'm guessing it doesn't get used much, because the system charges you $0.50 every time you use it. I asked one of the technical crew on hand, and he confirmed that the computer shuffles the entire virtual deck before the hand begins, rather than randomly selecting a card from the available ones when it is needed, as some online sites do--so at least it's a "real" rabbit-hunt, in the sense that the cards it shows really are the ones that would have been dealt, had the hand played out to the end. (See this post and the Hard-Boiled Poker posts linked to therein for more details on this point.)

Here's an advantage of the electronic tables that I hadn't thought of before last night. Late in my session, a young man in an electric wheelchair joined our game. He was quadriplegic, with limited use of his upper extremities. It appeared to me that he had gross motor control of his hands, but not much fine motor control. Nevertheless, he didn't seem to have any significant trouble tapping the appropriate areas of his screen. I imagine that manipulating real chips and cards would have been a huge hurdle for him, however.

The system can, I'm told, be set up to take out money for house jackpots (high hands, bad beats, etc.), though Excalibur is not doing so currently.

For the first night, they had no time limit on players' actions, though I hear that eventually they'll set it up with a one-minute limitation. I don't know if there is some way to override that for those instances where an exceptionally difficult decision requires additional thinking time.

The most common reason for delay of game was, as at traditional tables, players not paying attention. The screen changes, bringing up the action options, and a yellow bar at the top of the screen flashes, but if a player is chatting with his neighbor or watching sports on TV, he's not going to see those indicators. Really the most effective thing would be to have some sort of a buzzer or shaker built into the seats, to get your attention like the rumble strips on highway shoulders, but I suppose that's impractical. Remember that early episode of the Simpsons in which the family went into therapy, and they could all deliver to each other an electrical shock? I found myself wanting such a thing for the one or two players at the table who were chronically too busy yapping away to notice that it was their turn.

At one point it looked like our game was breaking up, so I logged off. But then we were told a couple of new players were coming, so I swiped myself in again. Interestingly, the system would not let me buy in for less than what I had just removed from the table. This is a good thing, because otherwise players could easily remove virtual chips from the table immediately after winning them, yet keep playing with less money on the table. I understand that it is set up to only let you buy in from scratch, for less than what you removed from the table, after an hour, which matches the typical house rule. Because the tables are linked centrally, you have the same restriction if you change to a different table of the same game, again matching the rule in most casinos that you can't squirrel away chips just by changing tables.

I did not like the sitting-out process. It only takes three button presses to register sitting out (e.g., for a restroom break): call up the options menu, click "sit out," then confirm it. But coming back in requires swiping the MGM card and entering one's PIN again. Maybe that's necessary for security reasons, but it's a pain in the butt.

My game did eventually break, and I went instead to a $0.50/$1 NLHE game, with a $50 max buy-in, which is something that has probably never been spread in any Vegas casino before. Very fishy indeed.

What I still haven't figured out is the degree to which physical tells will be useful. So far, it's not clear to me when an opponent's appearance of doubt and hesitation is because of the poker situation or because he's having some trouble with the computer interface. Maybe that will become clearer with time. I am pretty sure, however, that players new to casino poker stand out less at electronic tables than at tables with chips and cards. It is in things like handling chips and cards, knowing whose turn it is to act, tipping, string bets/raises, etc., that newbies most quickly and obviously reveal themselves as such. I think that a few buttons will prove easier for them to master quickly than all of the various things one has to do with chips and cards to be (and look) proficient.

What did other players think of the tables? I heard almost all positive comments, including, surprisingly, from a trio of obviously local friends, who were--how can I say this diplomatically?--of an age that I'd be willing to guess that their home VCRs still flash 12:00, 12:00, 12:00 incessantly.

I saw exactly three unhapppy people. First, while I was waiting in line just to enter the room, somebody came up to the security guard who was controlling access (letting in one person every time a spot opened up at one of the registration stations), and asked, "Where is the poker room?" The guard said, "This is the poker room." The questioner asked, "No, I mean the room where they play real poker." The guard politely informed him that this was all they had. The guy said, "Well then I guess I'll have to go somewhere else to find real poker." There was little doubt in my mind that this was a pre-rehearsed little bit of theatrical protest this guy was engaging in. I think he knew perfectly well what was going on.

The other two dissatisfied customers that I saw, though, were genuinely caught unawares by the electronic tables. One dude stormed off quite loudly after discovering what was happening in the room, yelling, "I don't want to play on no damn machine!" The other one was a guy who joined our table, was clearly baffled by the whole process, and didn't like it one little bit. I missed the crucial hand because I was talking with a very bright and interesting guy seated on my right, but apparently this player mis-clicked something. He didn't know how to clear the error (although the "clear chips" button is prominent enough that this shouldn't be a problem), and somehow accidentally moved all in when he didn't really want to, and lost all his money. His reaction struck me as completely sincere, that the whole thing had been a huge mistake, and he left seriously miffed.

Speaking of accidentally going all in, one player cleverly figured out an angle-shooting technique. We had just had a hyper-aggressive guy sit down and immediately try to bully the table with constant big raises. On the hand in question, he raised from under the gun to, I think, $20. The player in the small blind pressed some buttons. The screens showed him all-in. He immediately got a shocked look on his face and said, "Oh no! That's not what I meant to do!" It fooled me--it looked perfectly genuine. But when UTG made the all-in call with his pocket queens, Mr. Oops was revealed to be sitting on K-K, and broke out in a big grin. He won. Nicely done, sir. I've occasionally seen people pull a similar stunt with large-denomination chips (particularly in tournaments) "accidentally" being tossed in, but it was a novel variation on the theme to have hit the "wrong" button on an electronic table.

Some of the objections raised to electronic tables are just, well, looney. For example, a contributor to the forums with the alias of "Railbird" wrote, "I guess I fear change in this regard. I do not see any positive side. The reality that I see is a game that is not poker because it is not played with a real 52 card deck, shuffled and put in the air. Instead the "deck" is a computer program. What's not to say that the program will be written not to simulate a random shuffle, but rather to stimulate action. I just do not want to play that game." (See here.) To that kind of idiotic paranoia, I can only suggest having one's medication regimen carefully reviewed by one's psychiatrist. And watch out for the black helicopters following you home.

One of the most frequent comments I read in advance of the room's opening was some version of this: "If I wanted to play on a computer, I could stay home and do it." Most, though not all, such objections, I think, come from people who haven't tried it. My subjective sensation was that the experience is far, far, closer to traditional casino poker than it is to Internet poker--something like a 90/10 blend. Being able to chat with other people and watch them make their moves is worlds removed from sitting solo at my desk at home. Yeah, you press buttons instead of lifting cards and pushing chips, but I think that's pretty minor. I felt that the great majority of the experience I'm used to remained intact.

As regular readers must know by now, I generally dislike handling chips and cards, because, well, they're disgustingly filthy. (See here for my full rant on this.) PokerPro pleases my aesthetic sense on this point.

There are two main things I liked about the electronic tables that will keep me coming back for more. First is the relative paucity of unnecessary delays and errors. The game just moves along better when there aren't dealer changes, fills, exposed cards to figure out, misdeals, time-consuming split pots, making change, manual shuffles, out-of-turn action to sort out, etc. I played for about 7 1/2 hours, much longer than my usual sessions, but it felt like time passed much more quickly without those kinds of delays.

The second big advantage is simply profit. To explain this, let's talk about my actual results last night. I dug myself into a $100 hole early, when my J-J lost an all-in race to A-K with a rivered king. (PokerPro is TOTALLY rigged! That would NEVER happen with a real dealer and real cards!) I rebought, then just couldn't make any headway, sitting for more than three hours at about the same amount. Finally I had a couple of big hands (especially this one: Q-4 in the big blind, unraised pot, flop of Q-4-4, and a guy with A-4 in the small blind; I think he, too, may have concluded that PokerPro is RIGGED!) and got ahead. I was up by about $150 on the night before the final hand. I lost virtually my entire profit in one of those horrible flopped set-over-set situations: my 9-9 against somebody else's A-A on a flop of A-9-4. (See? RIGGED, I tell you!) It was nearly 2:00 a.m. at that point, so I decided to call it quits, and left with exactly $13 profit for my efforts. Bleah.

Anyway, let's consider the situation if I had left one hand before I did. As I said, it had been a pretty unimpressive session, with about $150 profit. The session stats screen informed me that I had won 45 hands. That means I would have tipped the dealers $45. Furthermore, the maximum rake was only $3 instead of the $4 plus $1 jackpot that the Excalibur previously took. You might argue against counting the jackpot money, because on average you get back what you put in, theoretically, so I'll disregard that. I can't say exactly how much rake was saved, because I don't know how many pots were of what size. But I think it's fair to estimate that the average saving was $0.50. So even if flesh-and-blood dealers had put out the same number of hands per hour as PokerPro did, I would have been up by about $67 less than I actually was ($45 in tips and $22 or so in additional rake). Furthermore, as I noted earlier, human dealers on average get out about 1/3 fewer hands per hour. Put all of this together, and it constitutes a huge fraction of my profit that would not have been realized playing the same cards a week before the electronic tables were installed.

As one more small part of this equation, the tables are set up to automatically reduce the rake (I'm not sure exactly how far) when the games get short-handed, as opposed to having to remember to ask for a rake reduction at traditional games.

Those are the main two reasons I plan to keep going back to the Excalibur: I can play with less annoyance and less fatigue, while simultaneously making a greater profit. I had not anticipated that the differences would be so dramatic, but they were.

Don't mistake me for saying that I hope all poker dealers get replaced by computers. My view isn't that extreme. I'm only saying that these tables have real, tangible advantages that, for me, definitely outweigh their disadvantages. I have no desire to see them take over every poker room in the city, but I'm quite happy to have them available in the mix of rooms I visit.

I don't have a keen sense of whether this experiment will succeed or fail, in financial terms, for Excalibur. It may be that people will take to them as I did. Or they may stay away in droves, as the saying has it. I don't know. But I hope they carve themselves out a nice little niche.


Immediately after posting the above, I went to to see what other contributors to the site might have been at the Excalibur opening yesterday and what their impressions were. Perhaps the best overall observation I've seen on the controversy was just posted a couple of hours ago by a person calling himself "lesvegas." I liked it enough to quote it in its entirety here (see here for the whole discussion):

I suggest to any of you focusing on the negative aspects of the change to
an electronic poker room through emails to MGM/Mirage, boycots of the Excalibur,
posts on this site etc., that you give equal time to focus on the positives of
the developing Las Vegas poker landscape by doing the same for the companies
that have invested heavily in their poker rooms.

Railbird, have you also emailed the execs at Hard Rock thanking them for
providing poker players with a beautiful new room to play and promising to visit
their property frequently? Did you write to the owners of the new East Side
Cannery and thank them for including a state of the art live poker room when
they designed and built their new casino?

I love Las Vegas. There is something for everyone here. Locals have places
that cater to them, rich people can stay at some of the most luxurious hotels in
the world. Fremont Street offers everything the budget traveller could hope for.

And now, poker players have more options than they ever had before. We have
the class of the Venetian, the swankiness of the Hard Rock, the coziness of TI,
the nitiness of the Stations, and the low stakes, drunken, swear at the
tableness of Excal. This is great. I want to try all of them.

As with most things, people will find their favorite room to play. For me,
its the Golden Nugget. I like the vibe, the atmosphere, the comps and the way
the room is run by managemant and dealers. Nobody talks about the Nugget on this
site, and thats ok by me. Its only one of many rooms. And that is the best part.
Many rooms, and choices for everyone.

Now, with new rooms and new ideas, we as poker players have even more
choices, and I cannot see this as a bad thing. All the doom and gloomers
predicting the death of live poker really need to see the big picture here.
There is a great deal of focus and investment in poker in Las Vegas and I, for
one, am very excited and cannot wait until next week when I come to town to try
out both the Excal and Hard Rock rooms.

About Aliante Station's poker room

Last night at the premiere of the Excalibur's new electronic poker tables (about which more shortly), I ran into an acquaintance who, I had heard, had been named as the poker room manager for Aliante Station, the new Stations property set to open in North Las Vegas November 11. He confirmed that indeed that is his new position. He told me that the place is gorgeous enough to make Red Rock look like a dump--and he is not a man who is prone to either idle exaggeration or vain shilling on behalf of his employer.

Of more immediate interest to me, though, was the persistent rumor that Aliante's poker room was going to use electronic tables from the get-go. Another version of the rumor has it that it will be half and half, both traditional tables and electronic. That version, I am now told, is definitely not true. It will be either one or the other. The odd thing, though, is that this has not yet been decided. One would think that this would have been settled long ago, with the opening a mere 80 days away, but apparently not. A final decision is expected next week.

If they go electronic, it will not be with the PokerPro tables that Excalibur has, but the very similar competition product from Lightning Gaming. (Well, at least the tables look very similar to me. Maybe there's something profoundly different about them that isn't apparent from the web site.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Strange sights on the streets

Just when I think I've seen every crazy thing that might happen in this crazy city, I come across something new and different. Like, oh, say, a guy out walking his lizard. (If there is a herpetologist among my readers, feel free to speak up in the comments and tell us exactly what that thing is.)

And in case you were going to ask, yeah, it was definitely real. Let there be no doubt about that.

Hard Rock may have a winner on its hands

The Hard Rock casino has been boasting for a few months now that its coming poker room would be the greatest things since sliced bread. Yeah, well, I've heard that before. I'll believe it when I see it.

For now, I'm sticking with sliced bread, but I have to admit, they did a really, really nice job on this thing. Nice enough that if the place stays busy, it could easily jump to being one of my three or four most common stops. (Right now, in case you're curious, it's Venetian, Palms, Rio, and Planet Hollywood, in no particular order.)

It was surprisingly busy tonight, with nine tables in use when I arrived (out of a total of 18, I think). But it was opening day, which obviously brought in a lot of curiosity visits. The test will be whether it stays this popular over several months.

Let me take you on a little tour. The room is located where there used to be a gift shop, on the left side of the hall (assuming you're coming from the parking ramp), just before you get to the main casino floor. There's a bar/lounge area to the left and the check-in desk to the right:

Then projecting deeper into the room is a wide sort of corridor, along which are three poker tables. This photo shows the tables, but not the corridor part, which is about as wide as the tables are long (i.e., the tables only take up roughly half the width, so there's plenty of walking room):

This corridor opens up into the main part of the room, which includes several tables and the cashier's cage:

Along the back wall of this main part of the room are three or four small alcoves, each with a single table and a nice little seating area for people watching the players:

Finally, there is one table in a separate room off of the main room, which appears to be for private games. Tonight there was what appeared to be a single-table tournament as part of somebody's bachelor party. I stuck my head in anyway. I tell you, there's nothing I won't do for you people!

The Hard Rock ordered nice Kem cards with a special design on the back, just for the poker room, which is an elegant touch few of their competitors bother with.

It was a rare tactile pleasure to have the feel of all brand-new cards in play, before they accumulate the layers of dirt and grime and lint and skin oil and grease from sloppy people's meals, etc.

The dealers were a mixed bag. This young lady was showing more cleavage than I've ever seen on any poker dealer, though I couldn't capture it anywhere near fully in the few attempts I made, this being my best effort. (It was getting to be a little too obvious, after about four clicks of the shutter in her direction.) Trust me--you're not getting even a decent hint of it here:

Other female dealers were more professionally dressed--much less boobelage--so I don't know why this one was so much more, um, exposed.

Anyway, skill level was good overall. One was superb, a guy named Stephen that I've always liked at the Golden Nugget. One was obviously on her very first day as a dealer. She made a few mistakes, but nothing terrible, and really above average for being green. The rest were entirely competent, but not outstanding in any way that I could notice.

I loved the tables and chairs. Lovely gray felt, against which the chips stood out boldly. (This is one of those little touches that too few poker room managers think of. If the chips disappear into the background color of the felt, it repeatedly slows the game down, because both the players and the dealer miss the fact that there has been action.) Great texture, with cards and chips sliding across it just right. They may have the most nicely padded rails of any room in town. Built-in cupholders. Foot-rest rail. My only quibble is that they spread games nine-handed and have 10 cupholders, which means the guy in the middle seat (5) gets two, and/or it will be forever unclear exactly which one goes with which seat. But that's better than nine cupholders for ten players, which I've seen elsewhere.

The tables are nicely sized--dealers able to reach everything, without the players being too crowded together. The tables have the built-in player-management system, so you swipe in at the table. This is far better than doing it at the front desk, for a bunch of reasons that I won't bother to explain (because you either already understand them or don't have any reason to care about them). Lighting was great--easy to see everything without eyestrain or glare. There's plenty of room to move around all of the tables. (I know this stuff sounds horribly picky. But when you spend 100-200 hours a month at these tables, small irritants can really start to get on your nerves.)

Chairs are among the best I've had the pleasure of using. They roll easily, swivel, go up and down, and even recline!

I played at one of the "corridor" tables, and from my seat could easily watch any of three big-screen TVs, though the people at the other end of the table would have had none in view, I think.

Noise was surprisingly subdued. I say "surprisingly" because the Hard Rock is notoriously loud throughout. When they had that new "Royal Hold'em" game for its official trial period, I often left with a headache because of the relentless barrage on my ears from the cranked-up music. Nothing like that in the new poker room.

It's a non-smoking room. The only potential problem will be those first couple of tables, near the main casino hallway and the bar/lounge area, in which smoking is allowed. I was at the second one in, so about as bad it's going to be there, and it was not bad at all. For a while somebody had a stinky cigar (which may be redundant--are there any non-stinky cigars?), which was unpleasant, but nowhere near intolerable. I think the inner tables will be about as good in that respect as anyplace in the city. I'm adding it to "category 2" on my ranking of how "non-smoking" poker rooms compare.

They have a built-in set of restrooms, so that one doesn't have to go out into the hall or the main casino area. This is exceptional, and worthy of heaps of praise. I think the only other poker room with a set of restrooms that is not used by anybody except poker room patrons is Red Rock.

There were masseuses wandering around, charging the standard $2/minute. I don't know if they will be there every day, or just at peak times, or what.

There is the typical capped progressive high-hand jackpot, no bad beat jackpot.

The only rule oddity I've learned of so far is that the Hard Rock becomes the second place in town to employ a button straddle. But unlike at the Rio, where pre-flop action starts with the small blind when the button player straddles, at the Hard Rock they start, as usual, with the UTG player, move around the table, skip the button, let the blinds act, then come back to the button for the option of last action. It's tricky, but probably less confusing than the way the Rio does it. It also doesn't put the blinds at as much of a disadvantage as I think the Rio's approach does. I'd still prefer that they dispensed with the button straddle completely, though.

When I checked in, the games going were $1-2 NLHE (five tables), $2-5 NLHE (two tables), $5-10 NLHE (one table), and a very surprising $5-5 mixed NLHE/PLO game. By the time I left, they also had running a table of No River Hold'em, which I still have never played. I had no idea they would be spreading this. I thought only Treasure Island had licensed it. Goes to show you what I know, eh?

The Hard Rock player's club card doesn't have a hold pre-punched in it, so I had to gouge one out myself when I got home, in order to squeeze the thing onto my ring of cards. I hate this. See how hard my life is? Boo hoo for me!

There were a few opening-day glitches, which isn't surprising. One dealer couldn't figure out what sequence of buttons to press on the player management system to register a player moving from one seat to another. One dealer didn't know the tournament schedule (though you can find it on the Hard Rock web site here). There were some chairs along the wall in the corridor, and when somebody lit up a cigarette there, nobody that I asked seemed to be sure whether those chairs were part of the poker room, and hence nonsmoking, or part of the bar/lounge, and hence smoking permitted. They were having communication problems between the dealers and the front desk, with the latter for some reason not knowing when seats had opened up (though they should be able to just look at a computer monitor and see that, without the obnoxious and error-prone "Seat open!" shouting system most places use). They somehow dropped my name from the waiting list before I got seated, and I had to start all over again. Floor people were so busy that there was an uncomfortably long wait for even minor decisions and problems.

But such problems are to be expected when an operation like this first gets off the ground. I'm willing to assume they'll work out the bugs fairly quickly.

The playing competition was a little better than I typically see at $1-2 tables, probably, again, because opening day will draw a disproportionate number of people who are true devotees of the game, and fewer casual tourists. Still, I certainly didn't feel intimidated or outclassed, and made $170 in 2 1/2 hours. Not great, but perfectly acceptable (especially given this month's history so far).

Nearly all of my profit came in two hands. In the first, I had A-Q on the button, and was one of six players to call a preflop raise to $12, so there was already a decent pot. The flop was queen high. Small blind bet $15, got called in three or four spots, and I decided to shove with TP/TK. Nobody called.

The other hand was a lot more fun. I cracked somebody's aces with my favorite junk hand, the ol' 2-4. (For the history of why I'm so fond of that hand, see here and here.) The flop was 2-3-4. Mr. Aces bet $25, I raised to $75, he shoved, I called. I hit another 4 on the river for a full house, just to rub it in a little bit deeper. My opponent was--um, how shall we say this?--displeased. He had a few unflattering things to say about my poker skills, before he stormed off, never to return. Hee hee hee! Clearly, the man does not grasp the raw power of the mighty 2-4 offsuit!

Well, that's about all I can think of to say about Las Vegas's newest poker room. It appears to be one of the best yet, and hits on nearly every aspect and feature that I care about. (Hmm. I just realized that I forgot to inquire about their comp policy. Dang. Oh, and I might as well point out that they have the absolute worst parking garage in town. The designer should be forced to drive around and around in it until he goes insane--though on second thought he may have already been insane when he drew up the blueprints.) Among other great things is the fact that I don't have to go anywhere near the Strip to get to it. If they can keep the tables full, I predict that you'll be hearing a lot more Hard Rock stories from me in the future.

You can see much nicer photos than mine over at Pokerati, here and here. My guess is that by Friday, when most people will be reading this, you'll also be able to find photos and/or reviews at Prof's poker blog and

Addendum, August 22, 2008

Well, I was sort of right about having early reviews up. What I missed was the fact that they already had them posted before I wrote mine! It took me about two hours (from when I got home around midnight to 2 a.m.) to write my thoughts and arrange the photos, and by then I was just too tired to explore whether anybody else had written it up yet, so I just threw in that final paragraph at the last minute to sort of cover myself.

You can read the official editor's review here (including some additional details on how the button straddle works, and how comp dollars are given), and comments from other site users beginning here. (Thanks for linking me up, Minton--it always feel a little too self-indulgent if I post a note on the forum directing people here.)

I was pleased and a bit surprised that Michael (LasVegasMichael, that is) liked the room as much as I did, and apparently for largely the same reasons. That's surprising because in the past he and I have tended to have very different opinions of what we like in poker rooms. He can be every bit as fussy as I am--just in different directions. So the Hard Rock has hit on a formula that is apparently appealing to quite different tastes--not an easy thing to accomplish.

Now we just have to sit back and wait to see how the action holds up.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


New episode of the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show is up here. I'm not in this one (will be back in the next installment), but you should be listening to it anyway.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Excalibur's electronic tables to debut Friday

So says a news article at Card Player's web site. It also explains a bit of how the money transactions will work. I plan to be there, and shall report on the experience here, naturally.

Not again?!

I've been reading every installment of James McManus's articles on the history of poker that Card Player magazine has been running for a year or so now. Great stuff, always interesting. The August 13, 2008, issue has the third part on the history of the World Series of Poker.

So I'm innocently reading along, when he gets to the famous Johnny Chan/Erik Seidel heads-up confrontation of 1988, and says, "In the final hand, already down 300,000 to 1.4 million in chips, he [Seidel] flopped the top pair; his problem was that Chan had flopped the nut straight. The crafty champion was able to trap the New Yorker into going all in on the turn with his pair of queens."

My heart sank. Not yet another author getting this hand wrong?!

It was especially painful because I have so admired McManus's writing. His brilliant Positively Fifth Street was literally the first book about poker I ever read.* I bought it at the airport book/gift shop on my way to Vegas in either 2003 or 2004 (can't remember for sure offhand), the trip on which I tried playing poker at a casino for the very first time. (It was a cheapo daily tournament at the Luxor. You'd be shocked to know how completely clueless I was. I lasted about 20 minutes.) That trip is what hooked me on the game, and McManus's book was a large part of the allure. I've read it three times, and think it's the best non-strategy poker book I've read. (This isn't to say that strategy books are better than non-strategy books; they're just so different that it's not easy to compare across categories.) So when reading his poker history articles, I had been thinking that McManus was careful about his facts, a source I could count on to get things right. [Insert disillusioned sigh here.] I guess not.

Let's set the record straight: The action on the turn was check-check. It was only after the river card was out that Seidel pushed all in and Chan called.

I first wrote about this in January, when I noticed an article by David Apostolico getting the action all wrong, and attempting to draw lessons from the hand that were completely bogus, because it didn't happen the way it would have had to for those so-called lessons to be valid.

I wrote about it again in May, when I discovered two more books that got the basic facts of the action wrong.

I might as well take this opportunity also to call out Gary Wise for getting things wrong in a historical note that Shamus pointed out to me in a comment on my January post. I contacted Mr. Wise via email in January and he said he would be correcting the error soon, but he still has not done so--hence the chastisement here. Wise writes, "When the turn brought the brick both players were looking for, Chan checked knowing Eric [Grump notes: he even spells Seidel's name wrong!] would follow his strong move on the flop with another bet. Seidel, knowing John had some kind of hand and that he hadn’t been helped by the turn, bet all-in, hoping to take down the pot right there. Chan called, and after another brick on the river, was crowned the champion." Wise also erred in stating that Chan had a "slight chip lead" going into this hand, when actually it was a greater than 4:1 lead.

So here's a list of the authors that I know of so far who have misstated one or more basic facts about how the hand went down:

  • David Apostolico
  • Gary Wise
  • Dana Smith, Tom McEvoy, and Ralph Wheeler, in The Championship Table at the World Series of Poker, Cardoza Publishing, 2nd edition, 2004, pp. 112-113
  • Richard D. Harroch and Lou Krieger, in Poker for Dummies, p. 140
  • Michael Kaplan and Brad Reagan, in Aces and Kings, p. 111
  • James McManus
Ten poker authors, all writing about what is perhaps the most famous and most viewed hand in poker history--one which can be viewed in full at one's leisure on YouTube (the video clip is included in an addendum to my original post back in January)--have all gotten it wrong.

I remained completely unable to explain this baffling, annoying, and disturbing phenomenon. If authors get facts wrong when they are this easy to check, one cannot help wondering what else they are screwing up.

*It's not really relevant to this post, but it's time I got a confession off of my chest. I always thought that McManus's title was kind of odd. I mean, sure, I got the "Fifth Street" part, but why "Positively"? Don't laugh at me, but it was not until last year that I somehow stumbled across a reference to a 1965 Bob Dylan song called "Positively 4th Street," and it finally dawned on me where McManus's title had come from. I can be incredibly dense and oblivious sometimes.

Addendum, April 11, 2010

The McManus article is now available online, here. Sadly, McManus repeated exactly the same errors in the book version of his history, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, published late last year, on page 290.

Funniest. Poker. Video. Ever.

Thanks to Pauly for pointing it out.

I had seen some of these before individually, but never so many compiled together. My favorites are Bill Chen as Mao, the sly references to David Williams and feet (we who get that are just way more immersed in the world of poker than could possibly be healthy), Barry Greenstein as Sesame Street's "The Count," Tom Dwan as Data, Daniel Negreanu in the Village People, Joe Sebok and Gavin Smith in "Dumb and Dumber," Dutch Boyd selling lemonade (it helps to know his history from several years ago), Jimmy Fricke as Einstein, Hevad Khan as The Hulk, Phil Ivey homeless, Jerry Yang as Dr. Evil, Paul Magriel (whom I saw at Planet Hollywood Monday night--dealer tells me he plays $1-$2 no-limit there all the time) in Kiss, Phil Hellmuth at McDonald's, Men Nguyen, Scottie Nguyen, and Chau Giang pedaling rickshaws, and Sammy Farha as Tony Montana (Scarface).

But hands-down the best is the "Blubber From Down Under," especially with little Freddy Deeb peeking into his own shorts.

Some excellent Photoshopping talent on display there. I wonder how many man-hours have been expended on making and browsing those things, and what sort of productive-for-society accomplishments could have been made with that time and creativity instead. Meh--who cares? It wouldn't have been as amusing, anyway.

Thanks for noticing

For some reason, it appears that other bloggers have lately been saying a lot nice things about me, either specific posts I've written or this whole darn blog. I don't know how to keep this from sounding like shameless self-promotion, but really my primary intentions are (1) to say thanks, and (2) to point readers to those bloggers who have had nice things to say about me, on the theory that if readers like me, they might also like writers who seem to like me. So here are the links:

Welcome, from Vandit's Poker Journey.

Nausea and fatigue--and tilt, from Fredrik Paulsson.

Indian summer in the poker world, from "Lenny" at Professional Poker Blog.

Tuesday morning link dump, from Dr. Pauly. (For some reason, I can never find a way to link to specific posts on his site, so you have to scroll down to the one from August 12.)

Retooling my poker game, from Plan3tgongpoker.

Inspired by the Grump, from Poker Gnome.

25 best poker blogs, from Million Dollar Blog.

Stupid/System Chapter 9, from Julius Goat (guest blogging at Poker From the Rail).

Just tearing it up, from Morning Thunder.

I may be a little too set in my ways

Just as I was leaving the Venetian last night, a guy who had been playing at my table stopped me. He asked if I was the Poker Grump. I confessed. I've posted my mug here a few times, so it's not too surprising that occasionally a reader recognizes me in a poker room.

This was different, though. He introduced himself and said that he had friends that were blog readers--former Hilton dealers who knew me. OK, that's cool. Nice to know they're checking in on me from time to time.

But then the oddness of this dawned on me. How did he recognize me, if he didn't read my blog himself and therefore hadn't seen my photo? He hemmed and hawed a bit, but then said that his dealer friends had described me pretty well.

Wow. Barring some really remarkable physical feature (a big scar across the face, maybe, or a Van Gogh-esque missing ear), could you describe a friend in such detail that a person who has never met him before could pick him out of a crowd, especially if that person has no advance warning of where or when he might run into the subject of your description? That's quite a task--or so I thought at first. I'd like to think that I'm pretty average and unremarkable, and that I basically vanish into the background. Norman Chad says of Allen Cunningham that you don't even notice he's at the table until your chips are suddenly being shipped over to him. That's exactly the effect I try to achieve. So I have an image--perhaps an illusion--of myself as not standing out in any way, sort of hidden or camouflaged at the table. It's a bit unnerving to hear that I could be spotted so easily from just a verbal description.

Then I got to thinking about it. Here's what the dealers could have said about me--and probably did: He's about 5'7", 145 pounds. Really short, thinning hair. Wire frame glasses. No hat. Always wears blue jeans and a dorky fanny pack. Almost always wears the same style of collarless, long-sleeve, crinkly cotton shirt. There will be a pen and a folded-up sheet of paper (for note-taking) in the breast pocket. Always carries a sweatshirt in case the poker room is overly air-conditioned (which they often are). Expect to see some stubble, because he's too lazy to shave more than once or twice a week, and doesn't care that everybody knows it. Sometimes uses an MP3 player with ear buds, though not consistently. Usually occupies either Seat 1 or Seat 10 next to the dealer, and will be the quietest guy at the table, playing a classic tight-aggressive game. There will be a silver dollar in use as a card cap.

But here's the part I didn't anticipate. The guy didn't give me any details (which is why I have had to surmise what they must have told him), just saying that his dealer friends' description of me was good enough that he thought he had me spotted, but the clincher was that they had told him I always keep my chips in meticulous stacks of $50 (i.e., ten chips high). Oh, man, that is me all over. I don't do any chip tricks, but I confess that I do tend to simultaneously assuage my boredom and satisfy my craving for order in the world by working on making those stacks as neat and precise as possible. Why stacks of 10 instead of the more common 20? Simple--I'm a klutz, and I tend to knock them over if they're any taller.

I guess I hadn't realized that it had become something of a trademark.

But put all of those obsevations together, and it no longer seems especially remarkable that somebody who has never seen my photograph could pick me out, even at one of the biggest, busiest poker rooms in the city. In fact, given that information, if he couldn't nail me within a few minutes, his observational skills would have to be so weak that he wouldn't make it as a poker player.

Sigh. I guess I'm not as camouflaged as I thought.

This is all tongue-in-cheek, by the way. It honestly doesn't bother me if people know who I am. In fact, it's quite flattering. If you're a reader and happen to notice me at the table, feel free to speak up about it if you want. I occasionally even mention this blog to people I'm playing with, if there is some reason to (such as I'm going to write about them, or some topic of conversation arises that I've written about and I want to point them to it), so it's not like I try to keep it a deep, dark secret.


By the way, not that I really needed further evidence that my recent losing streak was over, after the straight-flush incident, but I got it last night anyway. In six hours of poker, I had aces four times, kings one time, queens one time, jacks one time.




All praise be to the poker gods, for surely they are good and wise (most of the time).


The interesting bit of artwork above is from Ann Huey. See her web site here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ken Warren book review, part 2

This is a continuation of the book review begun here.

P. 127: Warren here gives us his "Golden Rule of Fourth Street Strategy," which is, "If you started with three good cards and catch a bad card while your opponent catches a good card--fold. Yes, I said fold. Cut it off right there. The pot is small and you are now playing with only six cards while he is playing seven-card poker. You don't mathematically figure to catch up by the river and the pot is not offering you the right odds to continue with the hand."

I like listening to Tom and Ray on NPR's "Car Talk" every Saturday morning. When presented with an idea or theory that they think is wrong-headed, their favorite thing to say about it is that it is "Bo-wo-wo-wo-GUS!" Well, that's what I think of Ken Warren's "Golden Rule."

Let's consider my usual $2/4 razz game on PokerStars. There's a $0.25 ante from eight players, plus a $1 bring-in, so $3 in the pot to start with. Suppose we get two limpers (very common scenario). Then my main opponent and I, who both have A-2-3, get into a raising war. Nobody else comes with us, but we cap it at $8 each. That's a pot of $21 going into 4th street. Now he catches, say, a 7, and Stars throws a brick at me, a king. He bets, of course. The pot is now $23. According to the wonderful razz equity calculator found here, my equity in this pot is now 29% to his 71%. But it costs me just the $2 call. I'm getting over 11:1 on the call. Mr. Warren, please explain how this is not the right pot odds to continue in the hand.

Ah, you say, but it's uncommon to have capped betting on 3rd. True. So let's consider a more typical example. Suppose I have 5-4-2 and my opponent has 7-6-A. It's a hand he wants to play, but he's not going to reraise me with it. He puts in the first raise and then just calls my reraise, ending the 3rd street round of betting. Even if both limpers fold, that's still a $13 pot. Now he catches a 5, I get a Q. He bets, making the pot $15. I have about 28% equity, and the pot is offering me 7.5:1 on a $2 call. Sure looks to me like the right pot odds to continue.

Moreover, as I've said several times in these two book reviews, at least at these stakes, a large fraction of players are coming in with one bad down card already. Usually these folks won't raise it themselves on 3rd, but they'll readily call a single raise, because it's only a buck, right? So let's say my opponent this time has J-A-2. He's the third limper. I raise with 2-3-6. He's my only caller. Pot is $8. He catches a 7 on 4th street, I get a Q. He bets, making the pot $10. My equity here is 47%, and I'm getting 5:1 on a call. Mr. Warren's advice is to fold. How does that make ANY sense?

Sure, I can set up parameters in which folding is correct: My opponent has the perfect A-2-3. I have the mediocre 5-6-8. There are no limpers. He puts in a raise, I call. Pot is $7. He catches perfect, a 4, while I get a K. He bets, making the pot $9. My pot equity is only 16%, or about 7:1. I'm getting 4.5:1 on a call. In this exact situation, I'd agree that a call is erroneous. But consider what I had to do in order to make folding the right move: Give myself mediocre cards to start, my opponent the best possible cards, and the pot the smallest that would be plausible. Change just about anything in that formula, and a call becomes correct.

Warren provide exactly zero mathematical support for his blanket assertion that a brick on 4th street means that the correct move is always to fold to a bet. I say it's bogus. Folding is indeed sometimes correct there, but it's often a huge mistake, in terms of the math.

Mitchell Cogert, to his credit, get this point right in his book. He says it depends on the size of the pot, the strength of your draw, and your best estimation of what your opponent holds. That is the only sensible answer.

P. 132: Warren writes, "Smooth draws to low cards are always favorites over 8- and 9-low hands at this point [i.e., 5th street]."

This is just plain false, as Cogert meticulously laid out in his book (appendix, pp. 119-128). For example, (4-5) 6, 7, 8 (the worst 8-low hand) is a 55% favorite against (A-2) 3, 4, Q (the best low drawing hand). I didn't just take Mitchell's word for this--I checked it on the simulator myself, and he is correct. As Mitchell emphasizes repeatedly (pp. 50, 115, and 125), "The player with a made 8 low is a favorite to any drawing hand."

The fact that Ken Warren apparently just repeated what he had heard or read somewhere on this crucial point without bothering to take, oh, about five minutes to run some comparisons himself on a readily available web calculator speaks volumes about his general lack of attention to accuracy in this book, or at least in the razz section.

P. 132 (again): "A four-card 5 or 6 is a favorite against a made 9." Again, this is just plain wrong, and Warren could have demonstrated that fact to himself if he had put in even the most trivial effort to do so. For example, (4-5) 6, 2, 9 is a slight favorite over (A-3) 5, 6, Q. (Cogert gives it as 53% on his p. 122; I came up with 52%.) (A-3) 4, 6, 9 is an even heavier favorite over the same 6-5 drawing hand--Mitchell's book (p. 121) and my run both show it at 61%.

You can't just lump all made 9s together. The second card tips the scales toward or away from favoring the made hand. As Cogert correctly points out (p. 55), a made 9-6 is a "slight favorite over a player who has any 7, 6, or 5 low draw, and a big favorite over an opponent with any 8 low draw." A made 9-5 or 9-4 obviously does even better than the made 9-6.

P. 132 (yet again): "A made 8 is a favorite over any four wheel cards." Well, this happens to be true, but it directly contradicts what Warren wrote two paragraphs before! (I.e., "Smooth draws to low cards are always favorites over 8- and 9-low hands....") Did Mr. Warren not even read over his own work, or think about what he was saying?

P. 140: On 7th street, Warren advises, "Raise only when you're certain your opponent will call with a worse hand."

I'm flabbergasted by this. If I have the nuts (a wheel), and my opponent bets into me on 7th street, I am going to raise, even if I have no idea whether he will call, fold, or reraise. That is obviously the correct thing to do, because there is absolutely no down side to raising. The worst possible outcome is that the two of you cap the betting, discover that you both made the nuts, and split the pot. When you have the best possible hand, you do not need to make even the slightest projection about whether your opponent will call--you just plain raise, regardless, because doing so is all potential gain with zero potential loss. And if he raises you back, you put in another raise, without stopping to ponder whether he will call it. That's all there is to it. I can't imagine why anybody would think there's any other smart strategy. Yet Ken Warren teaches that you should not raise with the nuts unless you are "certain" that your opponent will call.

It is sheer lunacy.

That's the end of my list of specific complaints, disagreements, and observations. I just want to add the general note that it seems apparent that Mr. Warren does not like razz poker. The last thing he adds in his section on razz is that he advises that the reader not play it! "That's right, I said don't play razz." He says razz is a "relatively boring game."

I would like to suggest to Cardoza Publishing that the next time they think a book on some form of poker would be a good publishing venture, they enlist an author who (1) actually knows what he's talking about, (2) actually plays the form of poker that the book will be about, and (3) enjoys doing so, in order that his enthusiasm for it will be conveyed to the readers. Ken Warren fails on all three points, insofar as razz is concerned. He doesn't know the subject well, he apparently doesn't play it (assuming he takes his own advice), and he freely admits that he doesn't like it. All three of those facts show through plainly in the essentially worthless section he wrote on razz. It is full of bad writing, contradictory statements, unjustified and unjustifiable advice, and erroneous statements of fact.

It may be that Warren is far better when writing about straight 7-card stud and the high-low split version. But I doubt I'm going to be finding out. After seeing what a horrendously botched job he did on razz, I don't trust him to give sound advice on any other form of poker, either.

If you're looking for a book from which to learn razz, Mitchell Cogert's is superior in every way, despite its flaws and omissions.

Book review: "Ken Warren Teaches 7-Card Stud"

Having just read and reviewed Mitchell Cogert's introduction to razz poker, I thought it would be interesting to jump right to another new book on the market (released in February) on the same subject, Ken Warren Teaches 7-Card Stud.

The razz section--which is the only part I've read so far, and the only part this review will discuss--is the shortest in the book, a mere 32 pages. Worse, several of those pages are taken up with sketches. The card graphics are so bulky that it takes a full page to show six players' up cards on 3rd street. It's a ridiculously inefficient use of space.

Despite the fact that this book came from a major gaming-related publisher (Cardoza), it is almost as riddled with dumb errors as I griped about Mitchell's book being. Three times in the first few pages Warren uses "it's" instead of "its." Uh, Mr. Warren, you might need to go back to, oh, about 5th grade, where you were supposed to learn that stuff.

On p. 119, he says, "When you see that you have a three-card 9, your fist reaction is that you have a bad hand." Wow. I guess Mr. Warren is an unusually violent man, if seeing that he was dealt a bad hand causes him to make a fist!

The worst grammatical error, though, requires a bit of explanation. There's an American linguistic phenomenon that I started noticing seven or eight years ago, and it has grown exponentially in frequency since then, spreading like a virus. It's the use of a bizarrely redundant "is." For example, "My point is is that we should be...," or "The bottom line is is that we...," or "The important thing is is that one can't...," or "What I wanted to say is is that I think...," or "The reason is is because...." When George W. Bush took office, he wasn't saying things like that, but a few years ago he caught the virus, and now does it all the time. Eight years ago, radio talk show hosts didn't do it, but now at least Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity both routinely say such things.

So far, though, this has been limited to speech. I had never seen this weird usage in print--until now. There it is, on p. 138 of Mr. Warren's book: "You should call. The reason is, is that he should be afraid of your draw." What the hell is going on with that??? What is the point of inserting that idiotic extra "is" and comma there? The sentence could and should simply be, "The reason is that he should be afraid of your draw." Mr. Warren, please explain the grammatical purpose of duplicating the verb in that sentence. You went out of your way to type it twice. Why?

And who hired the editors that let that sort of crap go through. "Yeah, looks OK to me, boss." Really? Then you deserve to be fired as a copy editor.

Drives me crazy. (In case you hadn't noticed.)

OK, on to more substantive matters.

Warren's book is ultra-simplified and basic. It took me less than an hour to read, and I'm a pretty slow reader, especially when I'm taking notes and thinking carefully about the material, as I was here (because I knew I'd be writing up my impressions). Maybe there's a niche for a book this rudimentary, but really, I don't know. I think that I had figured out essentially all of the strategy he covers on my own after maybe six or eight hours of online play.

Throughout the razz section, Warren denotes hands as, e.g., 4-5-6-7-8, or A-2-3-4-9. This is backwards from the standard notation format, which starts with the highest card and moves down, e.g., 8-7-6-5-4, or 9-4-3-2-A. The standard system makes a lot more sense, because the cards are listed in the same order that is used to gauge the hand's strength. I have no idea why Warren goes the opposite way, but it's confusing and counterproductive, and will, I think, cause the beginning reader confusion if he gets used to seeing things this way, and then reads virtually anything else written about razz (or any other form of lowball poker, for that matter), and finds the opposite notation used. Frankly, it makes me suspect that Warren just hasn't read very much on the subject, or he would know better.

One of the things I was looking for (and one of the reasons I decided to move immediately to this book after finishing Mitchell's) was contrasting advice between the two authors. I didn't have to read very far to find some. Mitchell emphasizes stealing the antes and bring-in bet to the point that he advises, "Look to steal when you are to the right of the bring-in bettor. If everyone folds to you, raise with your lower exposed card. Example: If you have a 9 showing and everyone folds to you, you must raise the bring-in bettor who shows a Q, even if you have pocket 9's as your hole cards." (p. 16) Further, "You have (K-Q) 4 and your opponent has a (10-7) 8. Everyone folds to you, so you raise as a steal with two high cards in the hole." (p. 17) On the latter page, he also advises trying to steal with an ace showing (though not every time), even with two bad down cards.

Contrast this with the extremely conservative advice from Ken Warren: "Never try to steal with only one low card, even if it looks like you won't be called.... Never try to steal when you hold a hand like [(J K) 2]. Your two bad cards coupled with the chance that you might be called by even one player makes it a very unprofitable play." (p. 116)

Honestly, I think they're both wrong, and the truth (or at least what works for me) lies about halfway in between. It's rare that I attempt stealing with two face cards in the hole, even in otherwise optimal circumstances (on the right of the bring-in, with a low card showing, and everybody folding to me). Maybe I should, though.

The problem, as both authors acknowledge, is that the bring-in bettor, unless he's a complete dolt, will recognize an obvious steal attempt as such and will be inclined to play back at you with a wide range of hands. So you can choose not to bother, leaving that money on the table, but not risking anything more, or you can take your shot at it and hope it works, ready to abandon ship if you meet resistance. I don't know that one approach is unambiguously more correct than the other, but if I had to rule in favor of one of these two opposing published points of view, I think Mitchell's is smarter and probably more profitable, though clearly riskier.

P. 116: Warren gives what I think is confusing advice: "Don't try to steal the antes with your very good hands. Steal with A-2-9, but not with A-2-5. [Note: the accompanying illustration makes clear that he means (A-9)-2 and (A-5)-2, not (A-2)-9 and (A-2)-5. The text is misleading--another editing oversight.] Why? It's because you'll win a lot more money with the A-2-5 if you let players in to play against you all the way to the last card. You can win either the antes right now or a big pot in a minute or two. Your choice."

Well, since an attempt to steal the antes is simply a raise, and in limit poker a raise is a raise is a raise, Warren here apparently means that you should just call the bring-in with your strongest starting hands, and let several mediocre starting hands come along.

I think this is bordering on insane. It's what many people have called playing "backwards" poker--raising with your medium hands and limping with your best hands. Opponents will catch on to this pattern quickly, and Warren says nothing about randomizing or mixing up this play with the more obvious raise. Worse, this inverse approach keeps the pot small when you're strongest, and bloats the pot when you're less likely to end up winning it. It makes no sense to me.

If your steals look just like the raise you put in when you have three great starting cards, your opponents will have to guess whether you're on a steal or you have the goods. Their confusion is exactly what you want, because it will make them inclined to make mistakes. If you actually followed Warren's advice here, pretty soon opponents would be saying, "Oh, look--he's limping again, and the last 25 times that he did that, he had three wheel cards. Better fold my 9 here." Then you end up with squat, which is allegedly the outcome that Warren says he's trying to help you avoid.

P. 126: "Keep the pot small if you have a decent, but vulnerable hand." (That comma shouldn't be there, Mr. Editor.) Um, well, OK, but you also told us to keep the pot small by not raising with our best hands, back on p. 116. So I guess we have to conclude that Warren believes either that there should never be aggressive raising on 3rd street, or that it should be done only with the really atrocious hands.

Really, though, again I don't get this advice. If a hand is "vulnerable," then the usual recourse is to try to protect it. How does one do that? The only way is by betting and raising. Warren's argument is that you don't want to do that because it swells the pot, thus giving proper pot odds for weaker hands to chase. There is some truth to that, but it's just an inevitable fact of life in limit poker of any form. You could make the same argument about pocket aces in limit hold'em: don't raise because you'll make the pot bigger and therefore more attractive to speculative hands to try to get lucky. But if you don't raise and make chasing as costly as you can, you'll encourage people to come along for another card because it's cheap or free. If Warren really believes that raising with a "decent but vulnerable hand" changes erroneous pot odds to correct ones for opponents with weaker hands, he should at least show us the math that he uses to arrive at this conclusion. I'm not buying it.

P. 126 (again): In the very next paragraph, Warren's advice becomes even more confusing: "Remember, this advice applies when you have a decent, [sic] but vulnerable hand. If you have an awesome three-card starting hand, go ahead and build that pot, because it's wrong for them to try to run you down."

Apparently he has forgotten what he wrote ten pages earlier--that one should not raise with one's best hands, because one does not want to shoo away the weaker hands. These two pieces of advice are not only inconsistent, they are incoherent. I'm not sure Warren actually knows what he wants to convey.

P. 126 (yet again): The bedlam of incoherence continues. Warren writes, "It's wrong for a player to chase you down when he holds [(5 9) 7] when the pot or small [sic; I think it's supposed to say "pot is small"] or contains only the antes, but it's correct for him to play this hand when the pot is big."

Let's think about this. How would a pot get big on 3rd street? By there being many players involved. So Warren is saying, apparently, that it is "correct" to play 5-9-7 against multiple opponents because of the favorable pot odds.

But back on p. 117, Warren told us, "You can beat one player with a mediocre low hand but you need a great starting low to beat two or three more players.... [Y]ou need a smooth 8 or [better] to play against three more players."

I don't know of any way to resolve the apparent conflict between these two sets of statements. First he says that you need a smooth 8 or better against three or more opponents, then tells us that it's "correct" to play 5-9-7 if the pot is large, which presumably means that a lot of players are involved in the hand.

Speaking of hands, it seems that Mr. Warren's right hand does not know what his left hand is doing, so to speak. It's hard to imagine how he managed to cram so many contradictory bits of advice into fewer than 40 pages.

Well, as with the last book review, I'm running long here, and I need to get to bed. (I tried sleeping but had a bout of insomnia, so got up to write for a while--hence the strange hour of posting here.) I'll finish up the rest of my comments later.

Note: Part 2 of this review is now posted here.

The losing streak comes to a definitive end

The other day I mentioned my recent losing streak, and what appeared to be a break in it, with successful sessions at two casinos in one day. The next day I had another good session at Bill's, and I told you I was pretty sure the bad streak was over. Tonight I sealed that conclusion in about as decisive a fashion as I can imagine.

Planet Hollywood. Player A raises to $10. Player B, on his immediate left, calls. I'm just to the left of Player B. I call, too, one off of the button, with 9-10 of spades. Both blinds call. Decent pot already.

The flop is an unbelievable queen, jack, and king--all spades. (See first photo above.) I have flopped a straight flush, and an unbeatable one at that. It is a thing of sheer beauty. This is only the second time in my life I've hit a flop in such a way that I absolutely, positively will win the hand, there being no possible combination of opponents' hole cards and/or cards coming on the turn and river that can beat me. (Story of the first such incident is here.) It's quite a rush, I tell you.

The problem with such a gargantuan monster of a hand, though, is getting paid off, because frequently nobody else has caught enough of such a board to venture their chips.

Tonight, though, that was not going to be a problem.

Player A, the preflop raiser, checked. Player B moved all in. I just called, obviously wanting to lure in anybody else that would play along. It was folded around to Player A, who also called. The turn card was another jack. To my surprise and delight, Player A moved all in. Gee, what should I do here? Well, OK, I guess I'll call.

Player B had A-10 offsuit, and had flopped the nut straight. He obviously moved all in on the flop in an attempt to prevent anybody from drawing to a flush to beat him. Player A had pocket queens, flopped a set, but was leery of the straight and flush possibilities--until the board pairing on the turn gave him a full house.

This is how you get paid with a straight flush.

I turned over my cards as soon as I had announced my call. Apparently Player A took in only the fact that I had two spades for a flush, because he then triumphantly turned over his queens and loudly boasted, "Full house!"

Then somebody pointed out to him the small, painful fact that he had overlooked--at which point he no longer looked quite so triumphant.

PH's king-high-straight-flush jackpot had, unfortunately, been hit just a couple of hours before for something like $220, so it had reset to its minimum/default level of $50. It would be unseemly, though, to complain about this state of affairs, and disingenuous to say that it was a result of my bad luck. They did give me the nice hat shown above, as a bit of consolation. Not that I really needed consoling at that moment....

With that hand, I mentally drew a curtain over the recent past, and declared my bad streak officially, resoundingly closed. Ended. Over. Dead and buried. I know that there will be other ones yet to come. Sooner or later, inevitably, the law of large numbers says that I will hit one even more horrendous than the one that just passed, though at the moment that seems incomprehensible.

So it's nice to be reminded that even the worst losing streaks really do end. All it takes is time and perseverance.

And just a little bit of luck.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Razz book review, part 2

This is a continuation of the review begun here.

P. 50: There is a peculiar example situation given on pp. 50-51. It's labeled "You hit a good card on 5th street." The situation is, "You have (4-8) 6,2,4 and your opponent has (x-x) A,J,9.... You started with three good cards, and improved on 4th street. When you bet on 4th street, your opponent called your bet since he had a strong draw. On 5th street, you hit good and he hit bad. Analysis: This is sweet when it happens. You are in the lead and you have the best draw."

I don't get this. How does pairing a hole card with a second 4 constitute "a good card"? How am I "in the lead" here? What is "sweet" about pairing? This makes no sense at all.

I read this over several times, and my best guess is that it's not trying to discuss a card that is actually bad but looks good to an opponent, because that situation is described elsewhere. I think this is a simple typo, and that one of the 4s should have been something like a 3 or an A. But I'm not certain about that. It's a terribly confusing section, whatever the explanation.

Pp. 52-53: Here's the example where pairing a hole card on 5th street is discussed. The example uses the same cards as above, which is probably somehow connected to what I think was just a typographical error in the faulty example I just described.

Anyway, the situation is that you have (4-8) 6,2,4, opponent has (x-x) A,6,J. Mitchell gives this analysis: "Usually when you have the 'visible' lead, you should bet as a bluff. But, since he led with a bet on 4th street, he is not going to fold. In this situation, your opponent is actually both in the lead and has a better 'four-card draw.' Therefore, your best play is to check and your opponent will most likely check behind with his J low. Save your money and see what happens on 6th street."

I don't think this is terrible advice, but it's not the way I would play it. Again, this is a result of having seen literally hundreds of hands in which the opponent bet on 4th while secretly owning a pair or face card in the hole. I think it's mistaken to say flatly that "your opponent the lead." Maybe, but not necessarily (assuming that one disregards my pair and his jack). It would not shock me to see in the hand history when it's all over with that the opponent actually had something like 2-Q in the hole. Even if he isn't on that level of bad as a player, he could simply have started rough. I have 8-6-4-2, but he could have 8-7-6-A or 8-6-5-A, for example. It's not something one should count on, but it's not a possibility one should ignore, either. I see it time after time, day after day.

I would bet here and see how he reacts. If he started rough or with a pair or big card down, he's probably going to give up now, and I don't want to give him a free card with which to catch up.

Perhaps more importantly, poker is a game of deception. Checking is a virtual announcement that the 4 paired one of my hole cards. I don't want my opponent to know that. If one routinely checks the betting lead upon pairing a down card, but bets when given a non-pairing good card, well, you might as well turn your hole cards face up for your opponent. I think a smarter long-term strategy is to routinely bet as if this card were a good one, and make your opponent guess whether it paired you. When he has to guess, he's likely to make mistakes.

At the very least, I think it is imperative, if one is going to check here, that one also sometimes check in the same situation if one caught, say, a 3 instead of a 4. That is, mix up checks and bets in some way that is independent of whether the card received actually improved one's hand, so that opponents can't confidently draw an inference about one's hole cards. Because I essentially never check if 5th street improved my hand, I can't engage in checking when it secretly pairs me, lest I give away my situation.

I want my opponent to think I just made my hand. Even more than that, I want him to fear that I have a made 6-4, if possible. That way, he will think he's drawing super-thin or even dead (depending on what he has in the hole), particularly if he calls here and bricks again on 6th street. I agree with Mitchell that he is probably not going to fold here, but getting him to fold is not really my intention (unless he is one of those that started much worse than would have been smart). My intention primarily has to do with setting him up to worry about my strength from this point in the hand onward, unless he catches perfect cards.

Pp. 56-57: The situation described is you with A-3-4-7-Q, opponent with x-x-6-8-9. Mitchell describes this as "On 5th street, he hit good and you hit bad." Maybe this is overly picky, but I wouldn't describe a 9 as hitting "good." Yeah, it's better than a Q, but if I'm the opponent in this situation, I don't feel very secure about my hand. Yes, the 9 might end up winning it for me if we both go brick-brick on 6th and 7th, so it's a bit of a safety net. But I consider that precious little comfort.

P. 64: Situation is you with 3-2-8-A-6-K, opponent with x-x-6-7-J-5. Mitchell writes, "You had a good starting hand, fell behind on 4th...."

Huh? How did an ace for me and a 7 for my opponent make me fall behind? I don't get this analysis. There may be another typo here, perhaps with an inversion of the cards--for example if he meant to give the example as 3-2-A-8 instead of 3-2-8-A.

P. 71: The two examples on this page describe potentially difficult decisions on 6th street after starting with 4-8-6.

Well, I have a solution for that: Don't start with 4-8-6!

Maybe I'm all wrong about this, but I've come to believe in the gospel of truly tight starting hand requirements (except for steal situations, of course). Hands like 4-8-6 are just plain trouble from the get-go, much like playing stuff like Q-J offsuit in hold'em. They have a high propensity to become second best. They also have a nasty tendency to force one into making very difficult decisions later in the hand, where it's essentially impossible to do more than guess whether one is ahead or behind. That is a situation ripe for making costly mistakes. I say avoid the problem before it begins. If I know that my starting hand requirements are, on average, significantly tighter than those of most of my opponents, that tips the balance in my favor for the entire remainder of the hand, when otherwise close calls arise.

I have almost entirely abandoned starting hands that include an 8--especially any 8-7 or 8-6. They're just not worth it, in my experience. Maybe an 8-3-A or 8-2-A or 8-3-2, but that's about it for me with the 8s. Now, admittedly, this may not be optimally profitable play. I honestly don't know. It's possible that restricting my starting hand range that way in the long run leaves some money on the table. But I am highly confident that it has had at least these beneficial effects: (1) I have fewer agonizing decisions on later streets. (2) On hands where the open cards are very close, I win more showdowns on the river. (3) Opponents defend their bring-ins against my steals less often. (4) My bluffs when I have secretly paired get respected more than they used to.

In short, I'm kind of on the extreme end of both the "selective" and the "aggression" parts of the ol' "selective aggression" advice. It's not the only way to fly, but it's working for me so far.

This is a particularly good trade-off for me, given the peculiar situation in which I play--with my attention mostly focused on other stuff, and looking at the game only when I have a good starting hand. I think it would also be well-suited to playing multiple tables at once, if one were so inclined, because playing only 10-12% of starting hands is feasible on several tables, without being faced with simultaneous difficult situations on two or more tables very often.

This leads me to discuss another general gripe I have about most of Mitchell's examples, which otherwise doesn't fit neatly anywhere in this review: The examples essentially all deal with hands in which 3rd street had one raise and a call, nothing more. My preference is to be unusually aggressive on 3rd street. I think that just about any starting hand I'm willing to go with is worth four-betting if I get reraised. That gets me additional information about how much my opponent values his hand, when he has to choose to cap the betting or just call. Also, it often traps another guy with a stinker hand, who is hoping to get lucky, into putting more money into the pot when well behind, or forces him out after he has contributed a few bets of dead money to the pot, either of which is a +EV situation for me. Again, doing so also projects strength, an image that I will use against my opponent later in the hand, if need be. Besides, because I have a narrower range of starting hands than most other players, I usually am, in fact, ahead on 3rd street, so more money in the pot is what I want.

Unfortunately, by setting up his examples to all have just a single raise/call on 3rd street, Mitchell is unable to discuss how the information one might have gained from watching an opponent's reaction to a 3rd-street reraise influences decisions on later streets. For example, if my opponent capped the betting, it makes it more likely that he's on the best end of his starting hand range, which in turn means that an A or 2 hitting on 4th, 5th, or 6th street is more likely to have paired him--especially if there is an added little pause before he acts (in which you can sense, from hundreds of miles away, his brain working on whether to pretend that he really liked that ace, rather than instantly reacting with glee that he caught it). Mitchell does discuss, on pp. 29-31, tips for deducing where on the strength spectrum an opponent might be sitting on 3rd street, but then he doesn't incorporate this information at all, as far as I can tell, into decision-making on the big-bet streets. For me, this is crucial data. What degree of strength an opponent showed on 3rd often tips the scales for me between a bet and a check, or a call and a raise, on 5th, 6th, and 7th streets.

P. 79: The situation described is you with A-3-2-6-Q-4, opponent with x-x-4-5-9-3. Mitchell advises: "You have a 6-4 made low hand. Your opponent could already have a bike. If he bets into you, you need to call. If he checks, you don't want to be check-raised, so check behind him."

Wow. That strikes me as extraordinarily conservative advice, perhaps even veering into the "weak and timid" range. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but there are very few situations in which I would be unwilling to cap the betting with a 6-perfect. It's kind of like having a king-high flush with three of one's suit on the board on the turn in hold'em. Sure, an opponent might have two of the same suit, with one of them the ace, but that happens so rarely that I'll usually be willing to bet the farm in that spot. In Mitchell's example, the opponent would have to have exactly an A-2 in the hole to be ahead here--no other cards will work. Yet the range of hole cards with which he could have played the hand as described is a lot broader. I'm willing to put my money in saying that he doesn't have the only possible two-card combination that has me beat. I'm going to jam the pot here on both 6th and 7th, and I'm confident that if I do so in this situation a thousand times, I'm the winner well over the 50% that I need to be for this to be profitable.

P. 92: I have exactly the same criticism of the example here. It shows you with (A-3) 2,5,J,K (6), and opponent with (x-x) 3,8,6,Q (x). Mitchell recommends raising his bet. Good--I agree. But then if the opponent reraises, he says just to call. Not me--I'm jamming here. I simply refuse to believe that he has a 6-5 beat. It's not impossible, of course, and once in a while I'll lose a huge pot for my disbelief. But think about it: First, there's only a very few specific combinations of three down cards he could have that beat a 6-5. Second, my opponent here is looking at my J-K showing. He could easily think that I'm bluffing with a third brick on the river and believe that an 8-6 is way good, and it is on that basis that he is pushing. If we both caught a miracle on the end, and his miracle turns out to have edged out my miracle, well, OK, that's how it goes sometimes. But a made 6-5 in a situation in which my opponent can have only the narrowest possible range of down cards to win (i.e., he needs all three of them to be perfect) is so rare that I'll take my chances.

Now for other general comments about the book that aren't really tied to specific pages.

1. I gather from comments I've seen from Mitchell that the contribution of which he is most proud is the analysis of made hands versus drawing hands on 5th street. I absolutely agree that 5th street is the big pivot point in the hand--for the most part, you make it or break it here. It is not always obvious whether a mediocre made hand or a strong draw is favored. So I heartily applaud the work Mitchell did in working this out once and for all. His list of the various made-hand-versus-drawing-hand scenarios, on pp. 55-62, and again summarized neatly on p. 115, is an extremely valuable piece of work. I haven't yet played since reading this stuff, but I'm going to figure out some way of making my own cheat sheet to keep at hand, because this situation comes up all the time, and I'm often not confident what the right move is. With Mitchell's list of all of the possibilties, I'll know what to do.

2. Every single example in the book is against just one opponent. Granted, this is the most common situation, especially on the later streets. But I think it's a disservice to the reader to have zero discussion of multi-way pots. It is the three-way and four-way pots that have been the most profitable ones when I have won them--and, conversely, among the most costly ones when I have lost them, because of the raising wars that they frequently generate. It makes no sense to me to pretend that they don't exist or are unimportant.

3. I think a book like this needs a list of resources--blogs, online forums dedicated to razz, online calculators/simulators, etc. With only 130 pages of text, the author obviously doesn't believe he has taught the reader everything there is to know about the game, so why not point the reader to other places in which to learn more?

4. There is no discussion of razz tournament strategy versus cash game play, and only little scraps here and there about short-handed versus full-table play. A thorough treatment of razz would include large sections devoted to those subjects.

5. I think it would also have been helpful to the novice reader to have some discussion comparing the online sites for razz, since probably 99% of all of the razz played in the world is done online, rather than in casinos.

OK, that's the end of my observations. I want to again reiterate my two big caveats--that I'm no expert and I could easily be dead wrong in my opinions here, and that many or most of my disagreements may be based on differences in how people actually play at low stakes versus medium or higher stakes. In fact, I should perhaps add that caveat to my general list of omissions for which I criticize the author--explicit discussion of how play differs at low versus medium stakes would probably be highly valuable for the beginning razz player.

Even with the differences in opinion in the spots I've detailed above, please remember that there is page after page after page where I worked out what I would do in the situation described, and then found that Mitchell came to exactly the same recommendation--which obviously means that he's a friggin' genius! It looks like less than ten spots where I disagreed with his recommended action, out of well over a hundred examples given in the book.

This book has its flaws, but I still wouldn't hesitate to recommend it as an excellent introduction to sound basic strategy. And given the dearth of competition, it's hard to think of anything else that one could recommend. (Possible exception: A couple of days ago, I received in the mail Ken Warren's new book on straight stud, stud/8, and razz. Haven't read it yet, so I can't say how its razz section will compare to Mitchell's work.) So if you want to learn razz, go buy it. I don't think you'll be disappointed.