Monday, February 09, 2009

Allow me to introduce you to Cardgrrl

The other day I received an email from a reader asking if we could arrange to meet while she is in town later this month. The signature file on the message pointed to her poker blog, so naturally I started reading.

Now, I have to tell you (actually, I have said this a few times before, but it bears repeating) that most poker blogs are crap, as far as I'm concerned. (Of course, their keepers might say the same about mine, but that's how tastes and opinions go.) Most of them just talk about specific hands and sessions, whining about bad beats, blah, blah, blah. I find them unreadable after about 30 seconds. Moreover, they tend to butcher the language and rules of writing the way I'd expect from a typical middle-school student. At a bad school. Who had flunked English. Twice.

So it definitely caught my attention when I quickly discovered that Cardgrrl (1) respects the basic mechanics of writing, and (2) actually has interesting things to say. Here's what little one can glean about her from perusing the still relatively short archives: After having had a variety of previous careers (including, I gather, web design, photography, and jewelry design--already an interesting set of background skills), she is now spending one year seriously attempting to see if it would be feasible to make it as a poker pro. The blog is the chronicle of her experiment, as is a book that apparently is being written as she goes. Maybe the strangest part is that she is doing this from Washington, D.C., which strikes me as one of the unlikeliest places from which to attempt launching a poker career, especially one that emphasizes live play over online play. OK, maybe Provo, Utah, would be stranger, but not by a lot.

The writing is smart, funny, and literate, qualities that one naturally assumes are shared by the author. The last time I was this impressed with a poker blog, for both having something original and interesting to say and saying it well, was when I started digging through the archives of The Vegas Year, which chronicles a somewhat similar poker-life experiment. (Still working on it, Robert, but I'll post a note akin to this one when I'm done.) Before that, it was when I first stumbled upon Hard-Boiled Poker.

So with that introduction, here are some of my favorite samples from CardGrrl, each followed by the accompanying URL, all posted with not even a semblance of permission from the author:

About an hour later, after a rebuy and a top-up (things are just not going my way at all), I find AhKh on the button. Five limpers enter the hand in front
of me, and ~ trying to learn a lesson from my previous experience ~ I raise to 10xBB this time. Surely this will induce some folding.

The big blind calls, as does a guy in middle position.

Flop comes 3s 5c 10h.

The big blind leads out 10xBB into a pot of 33xBB. Middle position guy folds.

I know this bettor. He could be leading with anything or nothing. I think there's a strong probability that my hand is good right now, and even if it isn't, I very likely have 6 outs to the winner. I also have to believe that, given my initial raise pre-flop, I have some fold equity here.

I reraise all in, an additional 31xBB to the original bet. I am called.

Turn is the ace of clubs. River is the ace of spades.

My trip aces go down in flames to... what else, the 2 and 4 of clubs.

Yes, the man called a huge raise out of position with the mighty 2-4 and took my whole stack. As he was explaining his reasoning, he said, "Well, I knew you had just wondered what raise would get people to fold, so I thought it would be fun to call with a donkey hand." He flopped an open-ended straight draw, and called a subsequent all-in bet despite not getting drawing odds.

And that was my night, right there.

I try to tell myself that I want people making these idiotic decisions, that in the long run I'll profit mightily off them.

(Obviously, this early in her poker career she had not yet learned that she had no chance from the beginning here, taking a measly A-K up against the nearly invulnerable 2-4. I wonder, in fact, if her opponent was one of my own disciples from the Holy Order of the Deuce-Four.)

I've always been a bit of an outlier on whatever normal curve you'd care to distribute the population along. I'm something of an oddball; I admit it, I'm
used to it, and mostly I'm okay with it. But with this change of profession,
such as it is, I'm really living into my differences these days. I am out-there.

Sometimes, driving the blissfully empty streets of my city in the wee hours
of the night, I feel so detached from the everyday lives slumbering in the
darkness around me that it's a little scary. I have stepped out of mainstream of
the economy, for example, in a fairly definitive way. My day-to-day activities
don't bear much resemblance to most other people's. And I spend a lot of my time
thinking about stuff that many people find either ridiculously arcane, of
dubious morality, fundamentally frivolous, or otherwise objectionable.

The more I play poker, the more convinced I become that the single biggest component of a winning edge is the player's attitude.

As with any craft or art, one must have mastered the basics. You've got to
know the math (to a reasonable approximation, anyway). You have to be in
good-enough health to think clearly, observe, remember, concentrate, and put in
a sustained effort. You have to be sufficiently experienced to recognize the
shape of certain situations and their likely significance. And, of course, when
you get to showdown you have to actually have the winning cards often enough.

But the fact is, all of the above is useless ~ as a practical matter ~
without the right attitude. Although elements of the right attitude change with
the circumstances, there are some things about it that can be asserted
independently. The right attitude is: even-tempered, open, unafraid, patient,
focused, flexible, imaginative, rational, creative, self-aware, and resilient.

Aren't these qualities highly desirable in life as well? (Of course, one
might also add to the list: ruthless and relentless. Compassion and mercy do not
enter the equation at the poker table; whereas, a life devoid of these essential
qualities of humanity is hardly worth living.)

I watch with astonishment as decent players fall apart because their
attitude is incompatible with success. They are so highly reactive, so
emotionally labile (to get technical about it), that a bad card or an insult or
the wrong music or indigestion or too much to drink or whatever disagreeable
internal or external factor can move them off their best game. They wobble into
disequilibrium, they tilt, and then with the slightest nudge they

Pocket aces are the best hand in Texas Hold’em. And, over the long run, they lose 15% of the time. That’s a little more than one in seven occasions, on
average. And believe me, when you’re playing for a monster pot or your tournament life, it seems like it happens a lot more often than that. Which is why, ridiculous as it may seem, there are players who actually say things like, “I hate the bullets, I always seem to lose with them.”

They don’t always lose with them, of course. But they remember the times
they do lose, because it hurts so much, and they gloss over the times when they
win with them, because they expect to win with them. This is called “selective
memory,” and it’s something poker-players should learn how to correct in
themselves, because it has all sorts of pernicious effects. We’ll talk about
that in other contexts too.

It is true, though, that your can get all your money in the middle pre-flop
with pocket aces and lose four times in a row. Or three times out of five. Or
eight times out of ten. You can lose with pocket aces over and over and over
again, to the point were someone will quote “1:6.6” at you and you will laugh
long and bitterly. When you look down at pocket aces you will see, instead, twin
headstones with your name engraved on them, and you will long for the sweet,
sweet release of death. You will develop a thirst for hemlock.

The next post is the only long one that I will quote in full, because I couldn't find anything I wanted to snip out of it.

On Being Bad

Most mainstream religions frown on gambling.

There’s definitely something unholy about putting one’s (or, ideally, someone else’s) hard-earned money at risk — subject to the vagaries of chance — rather than to work. Should you be squandering the precious resources entrusted to you for mere entertainment? Furthermore, gambling just doesn’t seem like a godly activity; Einstein, for example, was offended by certain aspects of quantum theory, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Gamblers come in two flavors, the superstitious and the scientific. The first subscribe to the magical property of luck and the second ascribe to the propositions of probability. Those who wish to mix luck and religion find themselves in the dubious position of asking their Deity to help them be lucky (we may pause to recall the unseemly spectacle of competing prayer-wars at the final table of the 2007 WSOP Main Event). This is particularly awkward for those who believe that God has a master plan, and all is fore-ordained. What is it you’re praying for in that case? “Let me turn out to be the one predestined to win!”

Those who are die-hard probability fans may start to wonder where God is in the grand scheme of things. If it’s all chance, given enough time and the laws of physics, pretty much everything that can happen, will happen. Why bring God into it all? There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are plenty at the poker table. (Believe me, run bad long enough and you will start to question the existence of a loving God.)

Poker, with it’s skill component, [Grump scolds: Cardgrrl! You know better than to put that apostrophe there!] brings some further concerns into play. Now, in addition to the gambling, there’s the matter of using your presumably God-given talents to take other people’s money. Specifically, to take other people’s money by means of deception, aggression, and by taking advantage of their weaknesses. You are to feed on your opponents as the wolf feeds upon sheep. The apparent lack of sharp teeth and overt bloodshed should not mislead anyone: poker is a predatory pastime. This is not the stuff of saintly behavior.

The wish to exercise the cardinal virtues of compassion and generosity, the commendable impulse to heal the sick and nurture the helpless, the desire to educate and enlighten the ignorant, and the natural human tendency to bond and form groups for mutual aid — these are all deprecated to the point of being out-and-out liabilities when playing poker. Poker is a caricature of Darwinian competition, “nature red in tooth and claw,” survival of the fittest. It’s a bit like capitalism, except without the productivity part. It’s hard to see how this is a good thing.

Various people have tried, in my view completely without success of any kind, to make a case for poker having some socially redeeming value. The closest that I, personally, have ever been able to get is the notion that poker facilitates the redistribution of wealth from stupid people to smarter people. This seems like a pretty feeble proposition (on a factual basis) to begin with, and I’m not sure that it would represent much of a social good even if it were proven to be true. I see no evidence that people who are good at poker are, in fact, any more likely to do worthwhile things with money than their less-skilled counterparts.

Does boxing have any socially redeeming value? Two people get into a ring. There are certain rules that govern their behavior, which are intended to ensure that the fight is fair. The combatants bring differing levels of preparation, skill, stamina, experience, intelligence, aggression, discipline, and desire to the competition. And then they hit each other. A lot. Let’s face it: somebody is gonna get hurt.

It has always baffled me that some people find watching boxing to be entertaining, and I am stymied even more by the fact that there are people who actually like to box. I don’t like to see people fighting, and I really don’t like to see people hurt. (I especially abhor the idea of hitting or being hit, myself.) Then I wrote the previous paragraph, and now — although it still doesn’t appeal to me — I think I may have an idea why they enjoy it.

Poker is like boxing, without the physical part. The key to both activities is that the participants come to the table voluntarily. 1

When you climb into a boxing ring, you accept that you are going to get punched. Repeatedly. Hard. When you belly up to a poker table, you accept that everybody there is going to do his or her best to TAKE ALL YOUR MONEY. There are rules and referees, it’s not a free-for-all scrum. It is not the case that “anything goes.” If you don’t abide by the rules, you won’t be allowed to stay, and you may even be sanctioned. But within the magic circle of rope or felt, you are permitted to — nay, encouraged and rewarded for it! — exercise all your faculties to prevail. Hit as hard as you can, float and dodge, outwit and baffle. It may not be nice, but it cannot be described as unethical.

In a word: compete. Bring out your bad self and go medieval on their asses. As the teenage son of some dear friends asked drily the other night, over dinner, “You’re not going to trot out the catharsis argument, are you?”

(Smart kid. Let him write the damn book.)

Where was I?

I was raised to be a good girl. I was brought up to be nice. I was taught not to be selfish and to tell the truth. I wanted people to think well of me.

Enter the poker table and Enter the Dragon.

At the poker table I am not nice. I am utterly selfish. I am devious. I am aggressive. I am ruthless. I lie my ass off. I don’t care if people think well of me or not. In fact, if they think I’m stupid, it’s good. If they fear me, it’s good. If they like me, it’s good. I can work with whatever they think. At the poker table, I am not a good girl.

And that’s really, really good. It’s the thrill of defying a taboo. It’s satisfying, on the level of an inchoate itch that you didn’t even know required scratching until you dug in your fingernails for the first time. I can reinvent myself however I please. It’s fun.

But part of the reason it’s fun is because, on a very basic level, it’s safe. I’m playing poker. There are rules. It’s a game, not my whole life. And although, while playing poker, I may not be a good girl, I am always an honorable girl. My integrity remains intact, and it is important to me that others know and can rely on that.

I despite cheaters. They blur the boundary between the game and the rest of life in a destructive way; the “bad” that should be confined to the context of the game leaks out into the world, where it absolutely does not belong. That decompartmentalization is a breach of the poker-player’s social contract, and it undermines the very nature of the undertaking. It renders the game unconstrained, unsafe, and therefore not fun. In the context of a poker game, cheating is sociopathic behavior.

1 I set aside, here, the case of those addicted to gambling. This a topic that deserves separate consideration.

When things are going well, it's difficult to remember how awful it feels when things go badly. And, conversely, when everything is going to shit, it's difficult to remember what life was like when things were easy and pleasant. In fact, I maintain, except for the very most highly evolved persons, virtually impossible.

This trip to Atlantic City was a classic arc. Things started out pretty well. I went deep in a tournament or two. I was up a couple of hundred bucks at the cash table. I was flirting with my tablemates, with the dealers, the floor staff ~ let's be honest and say just about everyone ~ and they were flirting right back. Fun was being had by all concerned. The cards, while not spectacular, were well within normal and acceptable parameters. Poker was being played. And life was good.

(I add, on an entirely and purely personal note, that one cannot truly claim to have lived, as a poker player, until one has closed down a cash table in a casino and proceeded, whilst stone cold sober, to make out with the player immediately to one's left, as the dealer sits by and does his or her best not to hear or see anything. The entertainment value alone of this experience is enormous, quite apart from any other enjoyment that may be derived from it.)

And so one quite naturally thinks to oneself, "things are going swimmingly, yea verily I shall extend my stay in this paradise of gaming, where the rooms are cheap or free, the people pleasant and accommodating, and the cash runs like milk and money, err, honey."

But no paradise is without its snake, no rose without its thorn. Or, if you are me, your paradise becomes a snake pit, and your rosebush becomes a thicket of thorns without a bloom of any sort.

That horrible, perhaps unfamiliar, but indisputably ominous creaking noise you hear in the background, is the sound of the doomswitch being pulled from the OFF position to the ON position. You don't know it, yet, but you are FUCKED. Everything that was fun and good is now going to become very, very unfun and very, very bad. It's as if the Apocalypse had five horsemen, not four, and the guy after Death (Death’s really, really mean older brother) is coming specifically for you. Did I mention: really, really not good?

You will go through the stages of grieving. You will deny. You will rage and you will make stupid decisions. You will bargain. You will be very, very depressed. And eventually you will accept. Or you will kill yourself.

You know, one or the other.

In short: you will tilt. Welcome to my world.

Women’s liberation and the feminist movement in general notwithstanding, women in our culture are still brought up to want — first and above all — to be loved. We are encouraged to do everything possible to be desirable, acceptable, and emotionally unthreatening. We are taught to avoid or swiftly resolve conflict, not to engage it, take it on, or god forbid escalate it. Few men, for example, would put "intimidating" high on the list of desirable attributes in a mate. (It was, in fact, a source of some consternation to me throughout my youth that people did sometimes characterize me as intimidating, especially since I had no intention of being so, nor could I really understand why others perceived me that way.)

But it turns out that, at the poker table, Machiavelli is right. It is better to feared than loved, if you have to choose between the two. This is especially true in tournaments. Tournaments are all about survival and domination, about putting your opponents to the test. If you cannot occasionally move an adversary off a hand when you need to, for example, you are utterly at the mercy of your cards and you are essentially playing bingo, not poker. Predictable behavior is not frightening: the bogeyman does not publish a schedule of his daily activities. He jumps out of the shadows, or emerges unexpectedly in the mundane environment of the laundromat (say), and wreaks bloody havoc. That’s scary. The tyrant does not forgive and forget, or pursue civil justice under the rule of law: he punishes his enemies (and the occasional innocent, just because) all out of proportion to their sins against him, and shows up with the secret police pounding on the door in the middle of the night. That’s intimidating.

While there are some benefits to having people like you (you may gain information, you may be given the benefit of the doubt, you may even get a break when you’re behind), they pale in comparison to the advantages gained by striking fear into your opponents’ hearts. I suppose if you could really somehow persuade your table mates that you were a harmless dumb bunny who was just getting lucky over and over that might be ideal. But realistically, that’s only going to work for awhile. Sooner or later any observant opponent is going to put two-and-two together and then, no matter how charming and careless you may appear, the fear and doubt are going to begin to set in. And then you have them.

Romans 7:19
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

I know I shouldn't play when I'm exhausted. So what do I do? I play when I'm exhausted.

I know I should work out every day, and especially on days when I'm playing. So what do I do? I don't go to the gym and sit around while my legs atrophy.

Once the minimum intellectual requirements are met, the fundamental key to success in this game is pretty simple: self-discipline. That comprises physical maintenance, emotional equanimity, and mental toughness.

I have a ways to go.

So there you have it--a little bit of what Cardgrrl has to offer. So go subscribe or add her to your favorites/bookmarks list, why dontcha?

1 comment:

bastinptc said...

Cardgrrl is a dear friend of mine, every bit as delightful in person as she is in her prose.