Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pre-flop thoughts

Over the years I have evolved a whole bunch of poker-related routines. Some of these I have shared with you, others not. Most of them are just unforgivably boring, such as why I like one particular style of shirt as my poker "uniform." (No, I'm not going to explain it--like I said, way too boring.) Others might be of interest to some readers. For no particular reason other than that it occurred to me just now, I'm going to try to relate what I think about between pre-flop betting and the flop's appearance.

First I recheck my hole cards, memorizing both ranks and suits. I never want to join the players who see two of a suit on the flop and then look at their hole cards again to see if they have a flush draw; rather, I want to be the one who already knows that, and watches the others to see who is looking.

Next I recheck my position relative to both the button and the others in the hand. Am I going to be first to act? Last? Somewhere in the middle? I count how many are in (dealers are supposed to announce this, but they get it wrong too frequently to rely on) and make a mental note that I'm third of four, or whatever. I also note who is first to act, because my habit is to glance at the flop, then move my eyes to whoever is up first.

Side note: There are lots of players who have learned from various sources that they shouldn't look at the flop as it is being put out, but instead should watch for opponents' reactions to the flop. I understand the reasoning behind that advice, but only partially incorporate it. Maybe I'm just too dull to pick it up, but my experience is that very few players give away overt reactions to the flop. The most prominent exception is the classic tell of how long a player gazes: Longer stares at the board often mean a complete whiff, with the player continuing to look, struggling to find something in the flop to like, such as a backdoor draw. It takes me not more than about a third of a second to take in the flop, at which point I shift to watching the first player--which is why I want to know in advance who that will be, and not have to go searching. This practice not only lets me get most of whatever he might give off, but the set pattern of eye movement helps prevent others from reading anything on me.

But back to pre-flop thoughts. The next thing I do is estimate the pot size. There's no need to be precise to the dollar. If there has been a raise to $10 with three subsequent callers, $40 will be my estimate, and I ignore any limpers who folded, what the contribution from the blinds might have been, what rake will get taken out, etc. Irrelevant details.

Based on that, I decide on an amount that I will bet. That doesn't mean that I will bet; the "whether to bet" decision depends on lots of factors, such as the flop texture, my relative position, whether I was the pre-flop raiser, what I know about other players' tendency to aggression, stack sizes, etc. But I want to have in mind what you might call my "default" bet size, what I will bet if I decide to bet and it's either checked to me or I'm first to act. It's usually in the range of 2/3 to 3/4 of the pot. I always reserve the option to change this if there is some compelling reason to do so. E.g., I might overbet the pot if it's highly coordinated and I want to make a draw more expensive than usual, or perhaps I have a big hand and a suspicious opponent, and I want to look like I'm trying to buy it with air. But the point is that having decided on a default bet size in advance removes one set of mental gymnastics that I would otherwise have to perform while everybody is waiting for me and watching me.

After I have rehearsed my hole cards and relative position, estimated the pot, and settled on a default bet size, if there is still time, I look around at opponents' stacks to remind myself about which players in the hand have the big stacks and can therefore either felt me or double me up, which ones have the short stacks and might shove light but can't hurt me much, etc. To the extent that I can, I also try to refresh what I know about my table image, and what mental state the players in this hand might be in: winning, losing, distracted, bored, on tilt, ready to go home, etc.

The goal of all of this mental scut work is to clear the runway, so to speak. I want all of the above information fresh in mind for instant access, so that I can direct my attention to two other things: (1) Analyzing how the flop lines up against my opponents' likely pre-flop ranges, and (2) watching the action transpire, along with interpretation of whatever I might happen to see. If the basic information required for these more demanding mental tasks--i.e., the things I just listed above--has been clarified and put front-and-center in my brain, then my limited cranial resources are freed up for figuring out the poker. Any mental processing effort that you have to devote to, e.g., checking your position or hole cards or stack size is brainpower that can't be used for performing crucial, more difficult tasks, such as running through lists of possible hands sitting under your opponents' card caps, or noticing and deciphering a player's initial move for chips followed by a check instead. Is that a monster hand and he made a last-second change of plan from a lead-out bet to a check-raise, or is it a phony attempt to dissuade you from betting so he can get a free card? You have to notice it first, then figure it out, and it will be harder to do either one if your attention is on rechecking whether your red cards were hearts or diamonds.

Every day--heck, every hand, practically--I see other players chatting, watching TV, and engaging in various other distractions during what I consider to be critical, precious few seconds of mental time between the close of pre-flop action and the flop hitting the table. I can then watch these same players as they try to catch up: whose turn is it? how much is in the pot? etc. You can see it on their faces as they look around, trying to put together the core information they need at the same time that they're struggling to make an analytical decision. You can see them go on overload and make mistakes. They also give off a ton of revealing information about how much they like their situation, because they're mentally so preoccupied figuring everything out all at once that they have no extra attention to keeping a poker face, and they leak tells. I like to think that I almost never do that.

I'm far from perfect at all of this, but I have had a lot of practice, and the set, prioritized list of things to be thinking about, I have found, is a great boon to keeping my thoughts on topic and disciplined. If you don't have such a pattern established for yourself, give it a try and see if you find that it helps you focus better on the hard poker decisions. If you do try it, I'd be interested to hear via the comments section whether you find it useful.

Oh, and one more thing: If you're ever at a poker table with me, and you try to talk to me during what might appear to be unimportant down time in a hand--after I've bet but before the flop hits--now you'll know why I'm likely to ignore you, or dismiss you with a curt "Wait a minute, please," or shoot you an annoyed look that is meant to convey, "Shut the hell up." Frankly, I'm pretty busy right about then, even if I don't look it.


(Toon found at

I just realized that in not just one, but TWO recent posts I have failed to include a story that I had intended to write up. So while everybody is starting to tire of cold turkey sandwiches, it seems an appropriate time to throw at you a couple of poker leftovers. Both involve specific forms of bad behavior I've never seen before, even though I thought I had seen them all.


This happened yesterday. I was in seat 10 and not involved in the hand. The pot was contested between Seat 1 and Seat 8. On the river, Seat 1 checked, Seat 8 bet $55, with four to a straight on the board. Seat 1 grabbed a partial stack of chips, enough for a call plus a little bit--maybe three or four chips extra. He put the stack about halfway between himself and the dealer and said, "Could you count it out for me?" That was an odd request, so I leaned forward to watch, trying to figure out what was going on. I could immediately see that the reason he wasn't trying to count the chips himself was that his hands were shaking like a heroin junkie needing a fix. (We would soon learn that he had pocket aces, which explains why he was experiencing an adrenaline surge.) The dealer counted out $55, pushed the extra few back to the player, but left the stack where it was, in the "staging" area. As she was to explain later to the floorman, she felt that she couldn't push them across the betting line (which the Palms poker room enforces) for the player.

At this point, Seat 8 announced, "I have a straight," and showed his cards. Too late, the dealer tried to stop him. She turned to Seat 1, pointed at the stack of 11 red chips, and asked, "Is that a call?" Seat 1, now seeing that he had lost, said, "No, it's not a call. I fold." He showed his aces and mucked them.

It was pretty clear to everybody that his intention had been to call. Why else would he have the chips cut out? Yes, sometimes a player will cut out the chips for a call in order to see what he will have left if he calls and loses, but (1) that's much more a tournament than a cash game thing, and (2) I got no such vibe from him here. There was no indication that he was mulling over what to do. His failure to push his chips across the line was simply a combination of him being lost in the moment and his not understanding that the Palms relies on the betting line--until the dealer pointed this out to him, and he suddenly realized that he had an escape, a way of saving himself $55. All he had to do was lie about his intention.

Floor was called. The dealer gave an admirably clear, complete, and concise explanation of the relevant facts. (Not all dealers can do this. Floor people often get confused because dealers tell incoherent stories, including irrelevant points and neglecting crucial information. It drives me crazy when I have to sit there and listen to the issues get lost in the jumble.) Floor guy was clearly a bit stymied about what to do, and there followed a period of uncomfortable silence.

This void started to be filled by other players saying things like, "That's not right, dude." "That's wrong--you were calling." This went on for maybe 10 or 15 seconds, with no floor decision yet forthcoming, until finally the tension was broken by Seat 1 resigning himself to the situation. He picked up the $55 in chips and tossed them across the table to Seat 8. Floor left, there being nothing more to resolve.

Interestingly, Seat 8 verbally acknoweldged that he was partly to blame for the mess, as he had not waited for action to be clearly finalized before making his announcement, so he gave Seat 1 half of those chips back. (I'm not sure if it was five or six.)

Indeed, both players were at fault. Seat 8 should have waited to be sure that there really was a call locked in before exposing his cards. (In this post I described two situations in which I had to ask for clarification of whether there was a river call before showing my hand.) But his mistake was just that--an innocent error, with none of what attorneys in the area of criminal law like to call the mens rea, the guilty mind.

Seat 1, by contrast, was being dirty, trying to angle-shoot himself an extra $55. I don't think he had malice aforethought; he didn't ask the dealer to count the chips for him as the first step in an elaborate plan to fake a call and withdraw it if he found out that he had lost. Rather, it was a spur-of-the-moment attempt to take advantage of a situation when he realized that he could. Still, it reveals an ugly personality. A player who is at heart honest and ethical simply would not stoop to that, either by planning or on impulse.

Secondary lesson: Betting lines cause more problems than they solve. Erik Seidel says they are "an angle-shooter's paradise." About all of which, see here.


The second story is an incident that occurred when I was playing with Grange95 at the Venetian, in the session I wrote about here. (I think this was before BWOP joined us.) This pot was contested between a young man in Seat 1 and 40ish woman in Seat 5. On the river, she bet, he called, saw that he had lost, and momentarily lost control of himself. He threw his cards hard, hitting his opponent in the chest with them.

At first glance, it looked like he had deliberately thrown them at her. That was clearly the interpretation placed on the action by the dealer--Sabrina, whom I have known since she worked at the Hilton back in 2007. Sabrina is a no-nonsense type, with zero tolerance for bad player behavior. (That's not a criticism--it's praise. I wish more dealers adopted the same attitude.) She immediately started calling for the floor, and was fully prepared to have Seat 1 thrown out on his ear--no warnings, just gone, BOOM.

(I am torn at this point as to which pop culture reference to incorporate. Option A, Monopoly: "Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200." Option B, Pulp Fiction, with Jimmie, played by Quentin Tarantino, explaining what will happen if his wife comes home and finds all this "gangster shit" going on: "I'm gonna get fuckin' divorced. No marriage counselling, no trial separation, I'm gonna get fuckin' divorced." Go ahead--you pick. I can't decide which one is more amusing and appropriate.)

But something interesting happened. The instant those cards hit the player, Seat 1's face fell. He was aghast. He started apologizing even before Sabrina could react. He said he had been aiming for the muck. Actually, I believe him, not only because of how quickly and sincerely he reacted, but because I had noticed that the cards took a weird sort of trajectory, initially dipping down, then catching some air and rising up again. The fact that the player hit by the flying cards was the woman who had just beat him in the pot was purely a coincidence--they would have struck whoever happened to be in that seat, as it was on the far end of the line between Seat 1 and the muck.

The victim was incredibly cool about it. In fact, it was only her immediate and complete bestowal of forgiveness that got Seat 1 off the hook. He was truly humbled by his gaffe, and ended a profuse string of apologies by noting, "I need to learn to control both my temper and my aim."


Guess the casino, #704

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

Answer: Boulder Station



I played at the Palms today. They had two new chips in circulation:

The first girl looks like a dream, and you'd probably live happily ever after if you married her. As for the second one, well, before you go falling in love with her, you'd better take a good look at her backside.

Wait. That didn't come out right.

You should take a look at the back side of her chip.

Yeah. I don't think anybody wants to be waking up to that. Morning breath is bad enough.


There's a guy I seriously dislike--because he is rude and brash and full of himself--and with whom I have had two major prior confrontations (poker ones, not personal ones), described in way too much detail here and here. He got the better of me the first day we met, but I took a measure of revenge the next.

He joined my game after I had been there a couple of hours:

I was looking forward to stacking him again. He was playing his usual game, full of crazy bluffs and bluster. I was disappointed that in the relatively short time he played we had no large pots together. One time I folded a 4-5 offsuit to his raise because I was out of position. The flop came 6-7-8, and he won it with a continuation bet. Oh, how I wish I had stayed in. It would have been epic.

Mr. Slot Machine

There was a man in a slot machine costume walking around handing out small cash prizes to people playing what I gather is a new game they're trying to promote. He looked so silly I felt obligated to snap a photo, for which he enthusiastically posed:

Here's what I wondered about him: What does he fill in for his job description on his tax forms? I fear it's probably something boring like "Casino promotions," or "Public relations." I think he should make it more interesting, like maybe "Professional slot machine impersonator."


The plans I had made for Thanksgiving didn't end up working out quite the way I had expected, and I ended up just eating some leftover Mexican food at home by myself. (Cue the sad violin music.) I decided to make up for it today. Fortunately, you can sort of cobble together a decent imitation of a Thanksgiving feast just about any day of the year by dropping in on any of a couple dozen different casino buffets.

I had never tried the Palms buffet before, but I had a lot of food comp dollars unused, so I decided to tap into them today. I was surprised that the lunch buffet is only $12. I loaded up my plate with turkey and mashed potatos and gravy and veggies and bread and rice (that's right, tripled up on the carbs), with cherry pie for dessert. It was still a little lonesome, but it felt that I had set things mostly right again. I played poker in a mild turkey stupor.

What about the poker? Sorry. It was pretty boring. I was down, I was up, I got lucky, I got unlucky, blah, blah, blah--nothing sufficiently interesting to write up. Maybe next time.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Today's fun history lesson

I'm shocked, SHOCKED, to find that gambling was going on in our prisons.

Hat tip: Mrs. Lederer.

Guess the casino, #703

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

Answer: Aria

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Guess the casino, #702

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

Answer: Tuscany

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Guess the casino, #701

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

Answer: Rio

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Small bit of thanksgiving

I'm playing a HORSE tournament on PokerStars at the moment, and seeing how this hand (in which I was not involved) turned out made me feel very thankful that I am not a poker dealer having to handle this in a casino with stacks of chips and several tense players watching my every move.

Dealer: AARALAA has a pair of Kings
Dealer: AARALAA has 7,6,4,3,2 for Lo
Dealer: Poooookie has a pair of Queens
Dealer: Game #53178663910: AARALAA wins Hi side pot-2 (73) with a pair of Kings
Dealer: Game #53178663910: AARALAA wins Lo side pot-2 (73) with 7,6,4,3,2
Dealer: Apache B has a pair of Aces
Dealer: Game #53178663910: Apache B wins Hi side pot-1 (4,869) with a pair of Aces
Dealer: Game #53178663910: AARALAA wins Lo side pot-1 (4,869) with 7,6,4,3,2
Dealer: gabrielle674 has a flush, Ace high
Dealer: Game #53178663910: gabrielle674 wins Hi main pot (4,623) with a flush, Ace high
Dealer: Game #53178663910: AARALAA wins Lo main pot (4,623) with 7,6,4,3,2
Dealer: Poooookie finished the tournament in 56th place

Good read about degenerate gambling

The real pain of poker, the only chronic, threatening pain, comes from the
daily loss of livelihood—how a player views himself in the face of losing. Pain
tolerance, then, is not measured in how well the player can take a bad beat or how long he can sit at a table without questioning what the fuck has happened. Rather, it is how the player handles an inevitable losing streak and the extent to which he will allow losing to affect his idea of himself. After a month straight of losses, a player can become convinced that losing is his role. Going broke becomes his thing to do, his inevitable outcome. The fog of losing, which feels like a seething, dirty steam in the veins, seeps into everything.

That is the pain of poker that must be endured and held at arm’s length: the existential pain that causes you to turn your vision of doom into a fate-bound story, as tragic and merciless as fiction.

Hat tip: Katie

Guess the casino, #700

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

Answer: Plaza

Monday, November 22, 2010

In memoriam

I just spotted this little notice in Card Player magazine about the death of Annie. Very nice, whoever did this.

You can read about my experiences with Annie here and in the posts linked therein.

Guess the casino, #699

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

Answer: Mirage

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tech question (blegging)

I used to use Vonage. I stopped the service a year or more ago. But my internet connection still runs through the Vonage router before heading down the Ethernet line to my computer. It's not doing any harm, but I can't see that it's doing me any good, either. So the question is this: is there any advantage to having a router stand between the cable modem and the computer, when there is only one device (the computer) that the signal goes to? I ask because I heard once that a router acts as a kind of firewall, even if you don't need it for connecting multiple devices to your cable modem. True? Or should I unplug and bypass the old Vonage router and save myself the few watts of power it draws?

Cardinal sin in online poker design

I'll get right to the point. When playing online poker, anyplace you click to designate your action in advance should correspond to the same action when the "it's your turn" set of controls pops up. The reason for this is that once in a while you go to click your action in advance of your turn, but just before you click the mouse button, it's suddenly your turn, and you're clicking on a set of controls that wasn't the same a split second before.

Bodog is a prime offender in this respect:

If you go to click on "fold," but the set of controls suddenly changes, now you're not clicking on the "fold" button, but instead on either "1/2 pot" or "3/4 pot." It's not a total catastrophe, because to confirm the bet you have to either click on the "raise" button or hit "enter" on the keyboard, so you can abort.

Still, it's an obvious design flaw that would be easy to fix. I don't understand why they don't.

Guess the casino, #698

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

Answer: Mirage