Saturday, February 06, 2010

Blog, interrupted

Once again, demands of real life are about to put a temporary halt to poker and blogging.

My mother's health has been failing for the past couple of years. Sadly, it is rapidly becoming untenable for her to remain at home. Tomorrow I'm driving back up to Salt Lake City to help my dad figure out what other arrangements need to be made.

I expect to be gone for a week or so, without much opportunity or motivation to be writing about poker. I trust you all will understand and be patient.

Guess the casino, #410

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

Answer: Excalibur

Friday, February 05, 2010

Guess the casino, #409

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

Answer: Flamingo

Deuce-Four day results

Just got back from a session at the Palms, leaving with a tidy profit. It all came in five big hands:

1) AA held up.

2) QQ flopped a set.

3) 10-10 flopped a set.

4) 5-5 flopped a set.

5) Apropos for the day, 2h-4h flopped 8-2-2, which then turned into a full house with turn and river 10s. Of course it was good. Duh!

Aces, sets, and 2-4 all not only holding up but taking down large pots is my definition of a favorable session.

February is off to a great start, poker-wise. (Some other things not so good, but I'll tell you more about that sometime in the next few days.)

Thursday, February 04, 2010

How not to learn poker

Last night at the MGM Grand there was a 50-ish man who played nearly every hand--80 or 90% easily--and didn't care if there was a raise.

A while into the session, he told a story that pretty much explained it. I will relate it as closely as I can to his own words:

"The first time I played poker, about two years ago, the very first hand I got 7-3 offsuit. I knew from TV shows that this was a bad hand, so I folded. The flop came 3-3-7. I would have made a full house! I said to myself, 'I just learned something important: The hand doesn't really start until the flop. You've only got two cards. You need five before you've got anything.'"

So that's how he played. Predictably, he was clearly a long-term loser. He would frequently end up with hands such as top pair but a weak kicker and lose quite a bit of money, or he'd call down with bottom pair. Of course, once in a while he'd make some sort of monster hand with a weird starting combination that nobody could see coming, but I have zero doubt that those wins are seriously outweighed in his long-term results by all of the smaller losses along the way.

Now, maybe he doesn't care that he's a long-term loser. Maybe he doesn't even keep records and therefore hasn't realized that he is. Or maybe he knows it, chalks it up to bad luck, and keeps playing. Or maybe he knows that he's not very good, but enjoys the game and accepts the losses as his cost of fun--and playing every hand is sure more fun than patiently waiting for the premium ones, all else being equal. I'm certainly not in any hurry to educate him on how to change himself into a long-term winner. He's happy with how things are, and so am I.

But his story caused me to reflect once again on how easy it is to learn the wrong things from playing poker. As many before me have observed, the game messes with our natural method of learning. You often do exactly the right thing and get punished for it, or do the wrong thing and get rewarded for it. The little squirts of dopamine in our brains will tend to engrain the wrong lessons from such experiences.

I remember that once when I was a little boy my mom had left the iron and ironing board out. For some reason, it seemed important to me to know whether the iron was on. Not being sophisticated enough to have figured out any other way of eliciting this vital information, I reached out my right index finger and touched the surface. It was on. Ow! I cried. When mom asked how I burned my finger, I told her I had touched the iron. "Why did you do that?" "To see if it was on." She laughed, which didn't make me feel any better. But I learned from the experience. I never touched the surface of a hot iron again. I figured out that I could put my hand close to it and feel whether it was radiating heat, without getting burned. In this instance, my brain's automatic learning processes did exactly what evolution has programmed them to do.

This educational method doesn't work in poker, at least not very well. You raise with aces, get a couple of callers, bet the flop, bet the turn, bet the river, get raised, call, and find out that somebody caught runner-runner straight on you after having started with 5-9 offsuit from first position. You feel the burn of all the money you lost, and your brain, completely unbidden, starts formulating plans on how to avoid feeling that pain again. This is how people develop the habit of limping with aces; they can't quite bring themselves to just muck them, but they have evolved a strategy of losing less. Others, conversely, put in such massive pre-flop raises that nobody calls them, and they win only the blinds. But both types of players have successfully learned how avoid the pain of a large loss, which has become a more important goal to them than maximizing long-term profit. Their automatic learning circuitry has led them down the wrong path.

Imagine if touching a hot iron sometimes caused a painful burn, but other times--more or less at random--the same action instead triggered some intensely pleasureable, quasi-orgasmic sensation? It would be much harder to learn not to touch it. Poker is kind of like that. It's not too hard to learn to like touching hot irons.

During my first month in Vegas, I was playing at the Golden Nugget when I was dealt J-4 in the big blind, with no raise. The flop was J-J-4. I don't remember whether the pot was large or small, but I won it. That was the first time I had ever flopped a full house. You know how certain scents immediately take your mind to some place and time when that odor signified something wonderful, like homemade bread, or your first girlfriend's perfume? Well, the J-4 is like that for me. It was such a rush, it left such a stamp of pleasure on my hippocampus, that every single time I see J-4 in my hand, I have an involuntary flashback to that flopped full house. No other poker hand triggers a specific situational memory like that for me.

But I don't play it, unless, like that previous situation, I can do so for free. I know it's a dog and causes far more trouble than it's worth. It will lose a lot more money than it will ever win.

So what accounts for the difference between me and the guy I played with last night? Why is he now basically a slave to the bad lesson he learned from his first hand of poker, while I get the visceral reminder of the thrill of flopping a full house but am nevertheless able to resist playing the same hand in an effort to replicate that experience?

I don't know all the anwers, though I think it's a really interesting question. Some of it probably has to do with my having played a lot more hands of poker than he has, and thus seeing more action/consequence pairs. Maybe I'm better at filtering out results that I know are anomalous, and giving them less weight in my later decision-making. Maybe I am better able to put faith in the poker authorities I read, and put less trust in an anecdotal personal experience that runs contrary to the received wisdom.

Whatever it takes to overcome the temptation to learn lessons from single hands of poker, we've got to do it. Those lessons are nearly as likely to be wrong as right, and integrating the experience in the same way that we integrate experiences about the world at large (e.g., it hurts to touch a hot iron) can end up being very, very costly.

But if you run into that guy from the MGM last night, please don't let him in on the secret, OK?

Happy 2-4!

As all of my good acolytes know (the date being circled in red on their calendars) today is the holiest day of the year: 2-4. (European readers are allowed to make April 2 their major celebration, since they tend to write the date in reverse order compared to us 'Mericans.)

More than any other day, you must seek out opportunities to play the deuce-four, bet and raise with it. The poker gods are watching and will reward your fealty.

If perchance you are a new reader and have not yet been introduced to the most powerful hand in hold'em, just click that "deuce-four" label at the end of the post for a list of all the pertinent stories that have been recounted here.

Happy Deuce-Four Day!

Upgrade at Hooters

(With that title, it's tempting to lead with a photo of before-and-after breast implants. But I shall refrain. Besides, I'm an au naturale kind of guy; I think implants usually detract from rather than enhance beauty.)

The last time I was at Hooters was exactly a year and a day before last night's visit: February 2, 2009, a fact that I did not know when I set out across the street after finishing up at the MGM Grand. I just knew it had been a long time.

The main reason I have avoided returning is that Hooters was one of just a handful of poker rooms that still allow smoking right at the table. (The others, to the best of my knowledge, are Arizona Charlie's--Decatur, Boulder Station, Club Fortune, Palms after 2:00 a.m., and Texas Station.)

I was surprised, therefore, when nobody was smoking when I sat down. As more and more time passed without anybody lighting up, I gradually realized that the policy must have changed. When the floor guy substituted in to give the dealer a break, I asked him about it. He said they changed it nearly a year ago.

Mind you, this is still one of the smokiest rooms you'll find; players need only step away from the table about three feet to light up. But it's amazing what a difference that small distance makes. Yeah, you'll still leave with clothes reeking, but it's not the gag-inducing injection right up your nostrils that it was when the sidestream was 12 inches away.

On that basis, I'm moving Hooters from category 6 up to category 5 in my list of degrees of smokiness in Vegas card rooms.

Also on that basis, there's a good chance I'll be patronizing the place a little more often than I have in the past. It's one of the softest rooms in the city, an easy place to make money if you can stand the smoke and the raunchy behavior of the other players. (Having the entire business themed after female body parts seems to eradicate any inhibition customers might otherwise feel about making sex the continual centerpiece of conversation. I can't recall a single mention of a woman in a few hours last night that wasn't about her body and/or sexual performance. It's true: Men are pigs.)

As an added bonus, Hooters poker room now gives $1/hour in comps that can be used at its restaurants or retail shops, like most every other poker room in the city does. They didn't used to do that (as far as I know). They also have a $100 aces-cracked bonus all day every day (highly unuusal), high-hand jackpots, and a bad-beat jackpot ($1000 shared--not sure of the distribution) for aces-full beaten.

The hatred is ebbing

I've been whining lately about sets treating me badly. Tonight the pendulum swung back in the direction I'm more used to. I spent a few hours at MGM Grand, then went across the street to Hooters, a place I tend to hit only once or twice a year. Between the two rooms, I hit seven sets, and didn't lose with any of them. Three yielded only small or medium pots, but with four of them (kings twice, jacks, and fives) I doubled up or felted an opponent. That included my kings cracking aces on a flop of K-Q-9 for the biggest pot of my night. I also never lost a big pot to somebody else's set.

As a result, I am experiencing considerable diminishment of my loathing for flopped sets.

Guess the casino, #408

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

Answer: Caesar's Palace

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Guess the casino, #407

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

Answer: Sam's Town

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Guess the casino, #406

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

Answer: Circus Circus

Monday, February 01, 2010

Guess the casino, #405

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

Answer: Aria

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Yes, I'm still hating sets

I already declared myself to be a set-hater, of course. Today I was given two additional reasons for my position.

Reason #1:

Here's how I went out of the WBCOOP final event today, exactly nine minutes into it:

Three of hearts on the river would have been super-sweet, but no.

Reason #2:

Playing at Mandalay Bay today, I picked up 8-8 in middle position, and raised a couple of limpers. They both called.

Flop: 8-9-10, with two spades and one diamond. First limper shoves. Second calls, but is clearly not too happy about it. I reshove, for what is only $14 more, and get called by #2, obviously.

First guy has J-Q offsuit for the flopped straight. Second guy has Kd-10d for just top pair.

I don't remember the exact turn and river, but they were both diamonds that didn't pair the board, and limper #2 takes it all with a backdoor flush.

As you can see, if matters not one whit whether the set is in my hand or my opponents' hands. Either way, I lose. They have been my complete undoing this month. And yes, since you ask, I am feeling plenty peeved about it.

Guess the casino, #404

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

Answer: Venetian