Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fun poker fact

On this week's "Poker After Dark," Chris Ferguson revealed that in an early version of the software that became Full Tilt Poker, the system would sometimes say "Winner winner, chicken dinner," and push an icon of a chicken dinner to the winner of the hand. He added that that particular feature got nixed soon after it was introduced. Probably a wise decision, that.

I'm just sayin'...

Sure, he won by getting a walk in the big blind. But why did his opponents fold? Because they sensed that he had an unbeatable hand, that's why.

My usual expression

Because I am the Grump, Cardgrrl (the photographer) insisted on the visage matching the name. The site is the Forum Shops of Caesars Palace, near the famous spiral escalators (not visible here)--which, by the way, are cool enough to be worth the walk from the casino.

Guess the casino, #56

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Mirage

Friday, February 13, 2009

Guess the casino, #55

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Treasure Island

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Poker gems, #216

Jimmy Warren, on "Poker After Dark," pointing to prolific poker author David Sklansky.

He's devoted his life to making limit hold'em games so tough he can't beat them anymore.

Guess the casino, #54

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Green Valley Ranch

Fun with Cardgrrl

I mentioned a few days ago that Cardgrrl was coming to town. She arrived today. I just got home from a delightful five hours of poker sitting next to her at Caesars Palace. As you might have deduced from reading her blog, she's smart, funny, and interesting, my top three favorite attributes in people.

I had aces twice, kings twice, queens twice, and A-K four times. Cardgrrl was mostly card-dead all night. Yet I ended up losing about the same amount as she won--and she had the added disadvantage of jet lag. You be the judge of who played better. Of course, I never even once got dealt the mighty 2-4, so I had no chance. (I'll let her tell her own 2-4 story, if she chooses.) And, in my defense, I was on the upswing when we left, and she was on the downswing, so it might have ended differently if we had stayed.

There was only one hand that I think is worth relating. I was on the button with Ah-Qh. (That's right, it was sooooted.) Several players limped in ahead of me. An elderly gentleman, who was under the gun, reraised all-in for $97. It was folded back around to me.

I had basically four thoughts, all of which converged on the same conclusion. First, the reraise was so big that it seemed clear that he didn't want a call, which suggested that I should frustrate his desires with a call. It would have been scarier if he had put in a raise to, say, $50. He still would have been pot-committed, but it would have conveyed a sense of "call me, sucker," rather than "go away." The way he put his chips in also seemed to me, well, defiant, for lack of a better word--overly forceful and dramatic. Second, he had played few hands, and I couldn't remember him winning a pot. I thought he was frustrated and pushing with less than a premium hand--the old "double me up or send me home" syndrome. Third, there was going to be enough dead money in the pot that it was mathematically OK to take the slight underdog position if he had an underpair, which is what I thought his most likely holding was (roughly 7s through 10s). Fourth, he could easily think my raise from the button was based more on position than my cards, as if I were just trying to pick up the limpers' money, and thus reraise me fairly light to catch me in a bluff. So I called. The big blind reluctantly folded.

I was wrong. He had Q-Q. The flop and turn gave me no help, so I was resigned to my fate--until the dealer put out an ace on the river. Whew! At that point, the woman who had been hesitant to fold said, perfectly plausibly, that she had folded A-K. Whew again! I had hit a two-outer. Hey, I'm not proud of it, but I'll take it.

The older guy who lost the hand got up in a big huff. He limped a short distance away to his mobility scooter, fired it up, and took off. But as he zoomed past the table, he called out to me, "You were only a 15:1 dog!"

And *poof*, he was gone out the door.

It's the first time I've ever been the victim of a drive-by taunting in a poker room.

The poor man would not have liked the reaction he provoked, which was laughter all around. It was so pathetic it was funny. It also became a running joke for the table. For the rest of the evening, when somebody made a bet, he or she would warn opponents, "You're a 15:1 dog here." Conversely, somebody folding would say, "I can't call--I'm a 15:1 dog."

I also managed to get a good laugh out of the dealer (who had been trying hard to maintain his professional neutrality) when I said, "He should have known a bet that big would only get called if he was beat."

I can't say that a good time was had by all, but I think a good time was had by all but one.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Guess the casino, #53

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Circus Circus

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Smelly and me

I ran into Smelly again a couple of weeks ago. He got up and left the table. It was one of the most tangible markers I've yet been given that I have gotten better at this game.

Back to the beginning of the story: As most readers know by now, the Hilton was the first poker room that really caught my attention as a quiet, friendly, comfortable, convenient, and profitable place to use as my default poker destination when there was not some reason to go elsewhere. I naturally ran into a lot of the same people frequently. One of them was a guy that I'll call Allen (not his real name).

Allen is a sourpuss. He could call himself the Poker Grump more accurately than I can. He also had questionable personal hygiene. One day when I was waiting for a table, I chatted with the person at the front desk. One of the high-hand jackpots had been capped at its maximum for an unusually long time, but that day I noticed that it had been reset to the minimum, meaning that somebody had hit it the previous day. I asked if it had been won by somebody I would know. She said, "Yeah, it was Allen." There were two frequent customers named Allen, though. One of them was dating one of the Hilton poker dealers. So I asked, "The one who's dating [so and so]?" She replied, "No, Smelly Allen."

I almost died laughing. Up until that point, I had no idea that the dealers had adopted that nickname for him for use behind his back. When they needed to make the distinction, there was "Nice Allen," and there was "Smelly Allen."

My first few months in town, I found Smelly to be a challenging opponent. Here's how I described him in an email to a friend back in Minnesota on September 20, 2006: "He’s erratic and tricky, very unpredictable, and I’m pretty sure I’ve lost more to him than I’ve won from him. When we’re in a hand against each other, he seems to be able to get away from me when I’m strong more easily than I get away from him when he’s strong."

Over time, though, I started noticing patterns to his play. For example, one of his favorite moves was a huge raise from the big blind when several people had limped in. After a while, I could even predict when he was going to do this, which meant that he was doing it largely independent of what his cards were. I also noticed that he would fold to a reraise, and wouldn't take any heat after the flop if somebody called him in that situation. So although in any one hand, that move might look like he has a big pair, seeing it occur many times made it clear that he was often doing it with air.

Another pattern that I started to notice was that he would usually put in a continuation bet after the flop, if he had raised before the flop, but he wouldn't fire second and third bullets if he missed the board.

The reason for that 9/20/06 email was to describe my turning point with Smelly. I limped in with 9-9. He raised, I called. At that moment, I had something of an epiphany. I could see the different paths that this hand might take at each decision point, all simultaneously. It wasn't a vision, exactly, but a weird sense that I knew the things he might do at each decision point, what each of them implied about his cards, and, therefore, how I would need to respond to them, for all of the remaining three betting rounds. Basically, most flops were going to go check-bet-call, because I knew that I needed to see what he did on fourth street to know whether he had (1) either started with a big pair or started with two big but unpaired cards and had hit one of them, or (2) he had started with two big cards and whiffed on the flop.

The flop was 10-10-2. Check-bet-call, as expected. Turn was a rag. Check-check. Aha! I was confident then that he didn't have an overpair. His pattern would have been to fire again if he did, and let my response dictate what he would do next. (I.e., if I check-raised, he would probably fold.) Now my only concern was that the river not be an overcard that might pair him up. It was another small card. I bet, and Smelly insta-mucked.

The hand had followed one of the paths that I had foreseen. Now that I have about a billion more hands of experience, nothing about that seems particularly remarkable. But it was the first time that I ever had an advance sense of the ways in which a whole hand could play out, instead of just taking each decision separately as it came. It was also one of the first times that I had been able to apply betting patterns of a particular opponent from previous sessions to a specific current hand. (Of course, I had at least some facility with observing and adjusting to players over the course of a session, but cumulatively gathering information on people over weeks and months was a skill I was just developing.)

The pot wasn't very big, but it was a huge turning point for me. From then on, I didn't fear Smelly. I realized that he wasn't nearly as tricky and unpredictable as I had mentally labeled him. The tide turned between us. I started winning more of our encounters.

By the time that the Hilton poker room closed about a year after that, Smelly largely stayed away from me. It was crystal clear that he had been burned enough times that he decided it was better to pick on other people and stay out of my way.*

Since the closing of the Hilton poker room, I have bumped into Smelly only three or four times, all but one of them, I think, at Harrah's. Our old pattern on those occasions seemed to continue--he would rarely contest pots in which I was taking the lead. He seemed to want to avoid me.

Then, as I alluded to at the top of the post, a most interesting thing happened a couple of weeks ago. I joined a game at the Monte Carlo where Smelly was playing. Within five minutes, he stood up and cashed out without saying a word.

It's impossible to know for sure that I'm the reason he decided to leave, but I have a strong hunch. He hadn't just lost or won a large pot, and didn't have a particularly short or large stack that would suggest itself as the reason for him calling it a day. I believe that he simply decided that he could find an easier table somewhere else. (That wasn't entirely due to me. I discovered that there were other good players at that table. But I think that I was the final straw in his decision to look for better hunting elsewhere.)

I can't think of any other opponent with whom I have that kind of history--starting off with me intimidated by him, and ending up the other way 'round. It's highly satisfying, because it's a pretty unmistakable sign that I have made progress (and had even made measurable improvement between early July, 2006, when I started here, and late September of the same year, when we played what proved to be that pivotal hand). Smelly, I'm afraid, has basically stayed at the same level of play.

And he still has questionable personal hygiene.

*Every time I write something like this, I feel the need to throw in my usual disclaimer: I do not view myself as any sort of poker prodigy. I'm not especially good at the game. No real pros would find me scary or difficult. I have a basic level of competence that is probably about as low on the scale of poker talent as one can possess and still manage to squeeze a living out of the tourists. Readers should not mistake what are intended as fairly objective statements about me being a better player than some particular other one as suggesting swagger on my part.

Guess the casino, #52

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Palace Station

Monday, February 09, 2009

I'll see if I can squeeze it into my schedule

I rarely pick my poker venue more than about five minutes before I'm leaving the apartment, but this week I think I might make an exception.

I have a hunch that Thursday night the Luxor will be my poker room of choice. Y'know, in case any of the girls get tired of the drinking and dancing, and feel like playing a little NLHE.

They might even want private lessons. Yeah, that's gonna happen.

Guess the casino, #51

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Rio

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.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Our brains are not wired for poker

This is a whole post devoted to telling you of a roughly three-second mental malfunction that I had the other night.

It was the unplanned mini-bloggerpalooza at Imperial Palace. I was in the big blind with some sort of king/baby offsuit hand, but nobody raised, so the flop came for free. It was king-high with two spades. I decided to take a stab at it and see what happened. Player A called. Player B called. OK--probably at least one of them has a flush draw, so if another spade were to hit, I was going to shut down. (Note that this isn't always so by any means. But the combination of being out of position and having an unraised pot pre-flop, so that opponents could have anything at all, meant that it was not a situation in which I was going to press hard with top pair/crappy kicker.) Turn was, indeed, another spade. I checked, Player A bet, Player B called, I folded. I don't recall the river action, but B won it with a small flush.

Next hand, I had some jack/baby garbage in the small blind. Again an unraised pot. Again the flop came to give me top pair, and again with two spades. I took the same tack. (I don't always do this, but the players left in were pretty passive, and a bet could often take down a pot uncontested, so I thought it worthwhile.) Same two players called me as in the previous hand. Again the turn was a third spade. I felt like I was Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day."

I checked, Player A checked, and B led out. My first reaction--which is, finally, getting to the point of this post--was approximately this: "There's no way that two hands in a row this guy can have been dealt two spades, flop a flush draw, and then hit it on the turn." I even went so far as to recall explicitly that if you start with two suited cards the probability of making a flush by the river is only about 6%, so must obviously be somewhat lower than that to hit it by the turn. Surely, I thought, he can't have had a less-than-6% event happen twice in a row--especially not in the same suit.*

The thing is, I know better than to think like this. I have had it drummed into me very thoroughly that things like hands of poker are independent events. The cards have no memory. What happened on the previous hand has zero bearing on the current hand. Hell, I even did well in a post-graduate statistics course back in the day. I know this stuff backward and forward.

What's more, I have an archive of posts making fun of players who don't grasp this simple fact. Here's one typical example. I'll even throw in a story I haven't told here before. In Minnesota, no-limit cash games are illegal, so the card clubs spread only limit. One time I watched a guy with pocket fours hit a set on the river, having called bets and raises from two opponents all the way, with every card on the board larger than his fours. His explanation? "I only called because fours have been hitting so often tonight." Brilliant, eh? In his mind, apparently, the cards had had a meeting at the beginning of the shift, and decided to have the fours be the stars of the show. He believed that enough to bet a substantial amount of money on the theory. (And, wonderfully, he was rewarded for it, thus perversely reinforcing his views.)

All of that history of me both feeling and actually being superior to many typical opponents in the degree to which I have internalized this simple concept is precisely the reason that I think it's so interesting that it would all abandon me, even if only briefly. I actually considered calling Player B in this spot. I might even have done it, if not for fear that Player A was setting a trap for a check-raise with the nut flush. And the only reason I contemplated the call was that kooky notion that he couldn't have made a spade flush on the turn twice in a row.

Fortunately, that thought lasted only about three seconds before rationality grabbed the steering wheel back from the stupid driver who was about to send it careening off the road.

Thinking about this mental lapse afterwards made me realize, for about the millionth time, how fragile our rational understanding of the world can be, and how easily it is penetrated, suppressed, and overwhelmed by erroneous, distorted, biased guesses about what is happening around us.

No matter how much I make fun of players who ask for a new deck of cards or a seat change** in order to change their luck, who play a junk hand on the basis of how lucky it has been for them (obviously the Deuce-Four is not included in the phrase "junk hand"), perform some weird ritual before each hand is dealt, won't touch $50 bills, believe in various good luck/bad luck totems, and so forth, I guess I have to admit that at some scary brain level I am only one odd coincidence away from potentially reverting to a caveman's grasp of the universe. We are deeply hard-wired to see patterns and infer cause-and-effect relationships even where they do not, in reality, exist. It requires constant vigilence to keep that tendency on a very tight leash.

Oh, and yes--Player B did have his second consecutive spade flush. Go figure.

*If it had been crubs, then sure. Because, as I have recently learned, crubs always get there. But we're talking spades here.

**Oooo, here's another story I haven't written about before. I'm pretty sure I told it in one of my early contributions to the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show, but I can't find it in any blog post. This was at the Canterbury Card Club in Minnesota. When one player left, the guy in seat 10 claimed dibs on a seat change because, he said, he was card-dead where he was (i.e., his request was not for tactical or comfort reasons, both of which can be perfectly legitimate). But he wanted to wait until he had played his button so that he wouldn't have to post the big blind again. On the next hand, when he was on the button, he ended up hitting quads and won a large pot. The dealer then started to help the guy move his chip stacks to the empty seat. The player practically shouted at the dealer, "What are you doing?" The dealer said, "You said you wanted a seat change." Seat 10, sounding as if the dealer were the world's biggest idiot, said, "You think I still want to change seats after I hit quads???"

Addendum, February 10, 2009

Just found the following story here:

Once football season ended, we put in a Splash the Pot promotion. That is
working out great and actually bringing in some people. It has also caused a few
comical events to occur.

A couple weeks ago, we had three tables going when it was time to splash
the pot. We drew the first table - table 7. Two hours later, we drew the second
table - table 7. At the time of the last drawing, one of the players sitting at
table 7 asked if he could move to table 2. His reasoning for wanting to move was
that table 7 had been drawn two times already and there was no way that it would
get drawn a third time; he felt he improved his chances of contesting for the
extra money on a different table.

I allowed him to move...and then I had him reach into the bag and draw for
the lucky table - table 7. After the pot with the extra money was completed, he
moved back to his original seat.

It's an "I'm bored" post

Yesterday on my day off from poker one of the tasks I accomplished was buying a new pair of shoes. Not a big deal? Well, you see, for me this happens about once every three or four years. I buy a pair and wear them for essentially everything, every day, until they're ratty enough that I'm slightly embarrassed to be seen in public. Yes, I am that cheap.

This time, largely because of having had such a good poker week (which continued today, incidentally; now at $88/hour for the month of February), I decided to go for new shoes even though the old ones have only one hole in them. I splurged $29.95 plus tax. Just as significant (or, let's face it, insignificant) is that this marks a departure from years of relying on New Balance, with a trial of Skechers.

While sitting at the Palms today waiting for a game, I was so bored that I took a picture of my feet. Then, having taken it, I had to post it here, right?

Today I am New Shoes Boy. (No need to send gifts or cards--but thanks anyway.)

Guess the casino, #50

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Comment: I am sort of cheating with this one, making it extremely difficult (I think) by zooming in so as to exclude the associated information that would make it almost trivially easy. To see what I have cut out of the photo before you check the answer, click here.

Answer: Hard Rock