Friday, July 22, 2011

Skirmishes in the information war

This post is in the form of a letter to Tony (yes, the same Tony featured in the previous post's silly story), but because the problems I identify are common, I hope there is value to my readers in letting you all peek in on it.

Dear Tony:

Last night was the longest time I've spent in a cash game at a table with you, and it gave me my best chance yet to observe for myself something that many others have commented on in your blogs after playing with you for a while: You give away way too much information. It's not entirely clear to me if you understand the extent to which you are doing it, or the damage it does to your bankroll, so I'm going to try to lay out some concrete examples from last night and explain how they can hurt you. These are just a few of the things I saw; there were dozens more that I could chose from, if I wanted to try to make an exhaustive catalog.

My intention here is not to embarrass you or say that you're a bad player. You obviously do well enough to get by. But you could do so much better if you closed off some of your leaks, and many of your worst leaks relate to control of information.

It should also be noted that none of these are unique to you. In fact, they are things I see commonly in many players--which is exactly why I think it might be valuable to readers to list them here, because they may see the same problems in themselves. But I would expect somebody who aspires to be a professional at the game to have a better handle on these things than the average tourist. Moreover, an aspiring professional should want to improve where he can. Though I have to point out specific things I think you're doing wrong, in order to make my points, my goal is to be helpful, not just condemning.

These are in no particular order.


You freely told people at the table about the current size of your bankroll. I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with you writing about this on your blog, and once in a while you'll have somebody at the table who reads your blog and therefore has this information. But to give it out voluntarily is, I think, a terrible mistake.

The most obvious problem is that it invites potential crime. Somebody might think that you mean that you're carrying all that money with you. I know that you're not, but what I know doesn't matter. Just the idea that you're carrying a ton of cash could set you up for being assaulted and robbed. You worry about that possibility enough as it is. Why add to the potential?

The second problem is that nobody cares, unless they're (A) a friend, or (B) thinking of trying to steal your money. Talking about money is fraught with social problems. It makes people uncomfortable. In our society, we don't ask other people how much money they have or make, and we don't disclose that information to others unless there is some very specific reason. I'm pretty open about just about everything in this blog, but I have never and will never talk in concrete terms about how much I make at poker. It's nobody's business.

I know that you care what others think about you. Telling them how much money you have will pretty much have only negative consequences. Those who have a lot more money than you will look down on you for being nearly broke, as they see it. Those who have less might be jealous. Either way, you have sown negative feelings. Negative feelings about you from other players hurt you. You make more money from people who like you. (This is Mike Caro's most emphatic teaching.) Doing things that make people either resent or look down on you is self-destructive. Frankly, you sounded like you were bragging, and nobody likes a braggart.

Answer me this: What do you gain by sharing this information with strangers at the poker table? How does it benefit you in any concrete, identifiable way? I think the answer is that it doesn't, and the potential for several kinds of harm is real. The cost:benefit ratio here is infinite.


You frequently discussed how a hand was played immediately after it was over. In one instance, you caught a pair (jacks, I think) on the river to beat a guy who had been ahead prior to that. You pointed out to him how his raise on the flop was so small that it made sense for you to call to try to catch a card. Then you told him that since you missed, if he had bet again on the turn you would have folded.

I'm not sure I can describe how awful this kind of talk is, in terms of long-term poker strategy. You were telling an opponent explicitly how to play better against you the next time! Why on earth would you do this? You should want him to continue playing as weakly as he did. That's how you won the hand, and that's how you would win the next one, too--except that you clued him in to precisely what he did wrong, and how to do it better the next time.

Frankly, I wanted to stand up and yell at you: WHAT ARE YOU THINKING???? The answer is that you weren't thinking at all. You were just reacting, with no filter between your brain and your mouth. Maybe the two dumbest things a poker player can do are criticize another player for his bad play and educate him as to how to play better. You did both at once. What did you get for it in return? A little bit of ego gratification. Was it worth it?

By the way, when you engage in such idiotic behavior as that, you cost ME money, too. If the guy smartens up and starts playing better, he will do so against everybody, not just against you. Your words are taking money out of my pocket, and I resent it.

There are plenty of resources that this guy and others can turn to if they want to learn to play better poker. It is not your job to educate him. Lots of recreational players aren't interested in investing time and work into getting better. They're just there to relax and have a good time, maybe win a little money if they get lucky. Imposing on them a poker lesson that they didn't ask for will tend to cause resentment. Sometimes they even leave the table, in search of a game where everybody is having fun and nobody will criticize how they play or make them feel stupid. Then we all lose out.

Tony, this kind of talk is self-defeating. It is precisely this kind of talk that is condemned with the common expression, "Don't tap on the aquarium--it scares the fish." There is absolutely no justification for it. It is a bigger leak in your game than things about which you have repeatedly expressed concern, such as how to play flush draws.

"The poker table is not a classroom. And you don't want recreational players to conclude that you're playing seriously. If you do that, they're likely to become self-conscious about their decisions and stop playing so liberally--which will cost you money." Mike Caro, Caro's Most Profitable Hold'Em Advice, page 242.


You repeatedly told everybody at the table whether you were up or down from your original buy-in. Once you even said something like, "I have to get back another $62 and then I can leave."

First, again, nobody cares, in the sense of being sympathetic for you if you're down or rejoicing on your behalf if you're up.

Second, as others have told you countless times, you cannot play A-game poker if you're obsessed with always finishing up for the day. Chips are tools for gaining more chips, nothing more. In other words, you shouldn't even be thinking about being up or down for the day or for the session, let alone talking out loud about it.

Third, it opens you up to exploitation. Have you ever noticed the way that many players segregate their chip stacks into their original buy-in and their profit? As long as they're playing with their profit, they're fairly loose. After all, it's found money, free money. If they lose it, they're not really out anything, as they see it. But if the profit goes away, and they start cutting into the original buy-in stacks, they become much more serious. A player like that who is reaching into the original buy-in stacks to put in his raise is far, far less likely to be bluffing than if he is only having to play with his profit stacks.

You know that, right?

You don't keep your stacks segregated that way, but the effect is exactly the same. If sharp, observant players know the degree to which you are ahead or behind, and they know that it matters a great deal to you which side of zero you end up on (and the fact that you frequently call attention to your status makes it abundantly clear that it does matter a great deal to you), they will exploit that information. Now, I think that you're not as completely predictable as the chips-segregation guys, and sometimes you're more willing to bluff and gamble when down than when you're up. But that doesn't matter. All that matters is that it's information that smart players can use to gain extra insight into how you are thinking and playing, and thus play better against you.

I would ask again, How does it benefit you at all to tell the table how much you need to make to be back to even? In theory, you could do this to spread disinformation, knowing what people will think of you, then do the opposite of what they will anticipate. But I do not believe that you are doing this. I think you are just spewing the information because it occurs to you, because it's on your mind so constantly, and, again, you just don't stop to think about the consequences of opening your mouth.


You show your hole cards unnecessarily. You do this a lot. You did it more than any other player at the table last night.

This is a complex area. There is no one clearly best strategy for deciding when to reveal your hole cards if you aren't required to do so. Some world-class players never do it. Daniel Negreanu, asked about this once for a World Poker Tour special feature, said that he does it occasionally, but always with a specific plan and purpose for what he wants his opponents to think and know. That's smart. Antonio Esfandiari recently noted in his live WSOP commentary that he never shows cards that reinforce an opponent's good decision. E.g., if they fold, he won't show them a winner--but he might show them if he was bluffing. He wants to spread disinformation and put opponents on tilt for having made a mistake, not give them a psychological reward for making the correct decision. Again, that's a perfectly justifiable strategy. It's a thoughtful way to decide what to show.

In Caro's Most Profitable Hold'Em Advice, the author spends several pages discussing how to selectively show cards in order to reinforce the erroneous tendencies of specific players. For example, show your strongest hands to players who are already inclined to fold too often when you bet. It will have the effect of making them think, "Yep, that guy always has the goods, just as I suspected." As a result, they will tighten up even more against you. Conversely, show your bluffs to players who are inclined to call you too often, in order to get them to call even more often. Again, this is a perfectly valid, well-reasoned approach to the question.

But I don't think you are following any well-thought-out strategy. I think you show when you feel like it, and there's not much more to it than that. That is unacceptable. That is unprofessional. That will cost you money.

By far the simplest approach is just never, ever show any cards unless the rules require you to show them. I think that should be your default plan. It may not be fully optimal, but it's never very much of mistake, whereas showing willy-nilly, the way you are doing now, is an egregious leak. If you asked me for advice on this point (and I realize that you didn't), I would say shut off that gushing pipe completely. Lock it down. Get in the habit of never, ever showing unnecessarily. After several months of getting used to that practice, then you can consider trying to find very selective, strategic spots in which showing your cards can increase your profits. But for now, just stop it completely.

You might also consider that the message you are sending is not the one you intended. I caught a very keen insight from Olivier Busquet the other day when he was doing live WSOP commentary. One very tight player raised, got everyone to fold, then showed some high pocket pair. Busquet was asked what it says about a player when he shows cards like that. He responded (paraphrasing here), "It tells me that he's weak and afraid. He is trying to tell the table, 'When I raise you shouldn't play back at me.' Why doesn't he want people to play back at him? Because he's afraid of tangling with them." I think Busquet is on to something there. It was a revelation to me. I had not thought of it that way before, but it's worth considering that when you intend to convey strength, it accidentally comes across as weakness.


You freely discuss what you will do with certain hands in certain situations. For example, at one point last night you showed something like an A-8 that you had raised with, and said, "I'll raise with hands like that, but I won't call if somebody else has raised first."

That was another occasion on which I wanted to yell at you. What possible good is that doing? The smart, observant players will file away that information to use against you. The really bad players, who only consider hand strength and not situations, perhaps have never considered that there are hands with which one might sensibly raise, but fold if somebody else raises first. Why are you giving them an education? They didn't ask for it, and if they learn to play better, it makes it harder for you to win their money.

For about the umpteenth time I'll ask, what could you possibly hope to gain by sharing with others exactly how you play certain hands?


I'm sure you'll remember the hand in which you had Q-Q and the other guy had 2-4, and hit a gutshot on the river to make a straight and win the large pot. I'll dispense with pointing out that 2-4 is the most powerful hand in poker and always wins. My point here is that you went on and on about this. You repeatedly said, "Goddammit," and other such things. Even half an hour later, long after that player had left the table, you were rehashing it, talking about how much money he had put into the pot when he was drawing nearly dead.

This is another example in the category of things you shouldn't even be thinking, let alone saying.

When I hear somebody droning on about a hand that was over half an hour ago, I know that he is not focusing on the present. I know that he is more likely to call than his baseline. (Never try to bluff a player who is obviously on tilt.) I know that he is going to be playing more hands than usual in an attempt to get back what he perceives as having unfairly lost, and will be more likely to bluff or overplay weak or mediocre hands. When you expose your feelings to the table like this, you unintentionally inform the better players what to expect from you and how to play more accurately against you. This will cost you money.

The best thing would be to get to where you don't care about the outcome, as long as you made the right decision. If you can't manage that, at least make it look to others as if that's where you are. Never let 'em see you sweat.


You played a hand with, I think, A-Q, then immediately afterward asked me if I thought you played it right.

I will never discuss poker strategy or tactics at the table with you--or with anybody else, for that matter. (OK, "never" is too strong there. But it's almost never. And when there is a rare exception, it is sotto voce, when seated next to somebody I know and trust, not out loud for all to hear.) It's just plain bad for the game.

It is a bad mistake to clue in the recreational players that there are layers of depth to the game that they are not seeing. It is unwise to let them know who among their opponents are the most thoughtful and experienced and analytic. The fact that they can't figure that out from just watching hands is part of what makes them bad players. (You know the old saw about not being able to spot the fish at the table in the first 20 minutes.) It is self-defeating to let them listen in on discussions about how a hand could or should have been played.

I also don't want to be spotlighted at the table as a player whose advice you seek and value. That hangs a big sign around my neck telling the inattentive players that maybe they should watch out for me more than they had previously been inclined to do. That, in turn, may make them less willing to play hands against me, and therefore cost me money. It's bad form all around, and reduces both of our expected profits for the night.

Mike Caro again, page 261: "It's a very bad idea to discuss serious strategy with weak opponents--at the table or away from it. Doing so makes them self-conscious, and helps them recognize that there are levels of poker they don't understand. They are apt to play more cautiously as a result, and, worse, they may even learn to play well!"


While sitting in Seat 1, at least one time you showed your cards to the dealer before mucking. The player in Seat 10 was still in the hand and saw them, though he didn't say anything about it. I know you didn't mean to show them to that other player, but you did. You might have influenced how the hand played out, because now that guy had information about what cards were out, information that was not available to his opponent(s).

It is generally really difficult to control exactly who can and cannot see your cards when trying to expose them selectively. It's just a bad idea.

Yet again, I have to ask: What possible gain is there from showing your cards to the dealer? He doesn't care what you had. If he is good at his job, he is not going to react and reward you with sympathy (which I assume is what you are seeking). He is going to act like he saw nothing. The best dealers, in fact, will turn their eyes away and refuse to look when a player is trying to share his cards that way, and explain that he doesn't want to take the chance of influencing the action by giving away anything with a reaction to what he is seeing.

This kind of action not only gives away to another player what you were willing to fold to his bet, but directly and adversely affects the integrity of the game. This was a serious breach of protocol. To be blunt, there is no excuse for it. There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost.

Some general thoughts:

I like what John Vorhaus wrote in one of his columns: "They say that information is power; in poker, it's cash, just cash." Information is money. You should not give it away when you don't have to.

Even better is Tommy Angelo's extended discussion of poker as an "information war" (Elements of Poker, pages 86-92:
I play poker on a need to know basis. I need to know the thoughts my opponents are thinking. I need to know the feelings they are feeling. And I need to know the cards they are playing. Meanwhile, I need them to know as little as possible about me. I call this relationship the information war.

The information war is fought on two fronts--sending and receiving. To win it, send less information than they send, while receiving more information than they receive. By controlling those differences, you control information flow....

The information war at poker has an arms race, and if one were to take it to its natural extreme--which I have--one would play a style of poker I call "mum poker"--which I do.

On the outside, mum poker is the classic poker face, extended to the entire body, and maintained through sixth street. [Angelo coined the term "sixth street" to refer to everything that happens after one hand ends and before the next begins, most especially the players' discussion about what just happened.] On the inside, mum poker is no complaining, no blaming, no regretting. Mum poker is stillness. Mum poker is readiness....

Or you could just think of it as sit up and shut up.

Today, when I am playing primarily for profit, I play mum poker.... I do not speak unless spoken to, and even then, I do not react to questions or comments about poker.

I have found that the less information I send, the more I focus on the game. And when I am focused on the game, I send less information. When I employ mum poker, I fight on both fronts of the information war simultaneously....

Mum poker is not about not talking. It's about not talking about certain things, namely, poker things. Mum poker means not talking about poker plays, poker thoughts, and poker feelings, especially the recent ones. And it means not talking about poker players, especially the present ones.

Mum poker means not saying certain words and phrases when you play. Words like ace, king, queen, spade, heart, pair, straight, gutshot, river, etc. Mum poker also means not being a dickhead. If someone asks you if you like your food, answer. If someone asks you if you like your cards, don't answer. That's mum poker....

There's a big difference between ignoring the people and events in a poker game and not reacting to them. Ignoring is when you react on the inside, but not on the outside. Not reacting is when nothing happens, inside or out. Not reacting looks the same as ignoring, but it feels better....

Everything everyone does is a tell. What they wear is a tell. How they sit is a tell. What they say is a tell. What they don't say is a tell.... It's all a seamless trail of tells. And what do all these tells tell you? It depends. Tells might tell you about your opponent's thoughts. Tells might tell you about your opponent's feelings. Tells might tell you about your opponent's intentions. Tells might tell you what your opponent's hole cards are. It all depends on what you are doing. Are you listening? Or are you telling?

To the extent that there is identifiable motivation for why you do these things, I think it is chiefly that you very much want others at the table to respect you, to think that you're a good player. To that end, you try to show them that you understand the game more deeply than they do. But sooner or later you have to ask yourself what is really more important to you--controlling what nine strangers think of how you play poker, or maximizing your profit? Those two goals are mutually exclusive. You cannot give away information without giving away money. As it stands, you are giving away information on a nearly constant basis. That means that you are giving away money. I don't think you can afford it.

I have a serious suggestion for you, and for any of my readers who recognize similar problems in their own information wars. When you first read this, you'll think I'm just exaggerating to make a point, but I'm not. I'm deadly serious and completely literal in this suggestion: If you really want to plug these information leaks, you have to make your brain equate information and money in a very explicit and automatic way. I suggest that every time you catch yourself leaking information--showing a card that you didn't have to show, talking about strategy, criticizing how an opponent played, cursing about a bad beat, rehashing a hand that is long over, discussing your bankroll, telling people whether you're up or down for the day--punish yourself by giving the dealer a $5 chip as a tip. Giving away information is giving away money, and you've got to learn that association down to the deepest fibers of your being. The way to ingrain that lesson, I submit, is to make it hurt, and make the information=money connection explicit to yourself along with the pain.

I don't know whether any one piece of information that you give away is worth more or less than $5, and it really doesn't matter. What matters is that you come to grips with the fact that when you leak information, you are giving away your chips. It is literally true, whether you acknowledge it or not, so make it literally true and concrete for yourself. I predict that if you do that, it will not take long before you learn to keep your information to yourself--and all those red chips, too.

If your reaction is that you can't help yourself, that these things just happen, I will have to disagree. Suppose I offered to pay you $100,000 if you played poker for one hour without a single unnecessary information leak. Could you pull it off? Of course you could. These leaks are things you choose to do--every single one of them, every single time--and you could choose not to do them if you wanted to, if you had sufficient motivation. The question that remains is whether you will decide that making more money is sufficient motivation.

I hope you find these observations and suggestions helpful. I wish you success, my friend.


Pokerdogg said...

Excellent observation and analysis, Pokergrump, I hope Tony will take your comments to heart.

Anonymous said...

Very well posted, thanks

Anonymous said...

Nice post Grump, although we know Tony will ignore it... Question is, aren't you educating all the rest of us fish with this info? I'm going to play better... Thanks.
Doesn't matter about educating Tony as we all know he won't use it.

grrouchie said...

Excellent information and well written article.

As someone who has been playing with Tony a lot lately and trying to discuss some hands/situations with him (To no avail) I can say that I have picked up on all of this as well.

I, however, cannot express it as verbosely and articulately as you sir!

Terry in Victoria, Canada said...

Great Article as usual Grump. By the way I absolutely loved Olivier Busquet's commentary on the live WSOP feeds. He was superior to everybody in his analysis.

CoolDave88 said...

Very thoughtful and insightful. Well done!

Anonymous said...

So TBC is annoying and has bad strategy and etiquette. 95% of the poker world is the same.

James said...

For someone that done shit in the WSOP and who is not a professional you are really beginning to get on my nerves . WHO are you to tell someone else how to play ? ? You tell HIM not to tell someone their weaknessess yet YOU are doing it to HIM ! ! ! Honestly who do you think you are ? ? You will read this and not post it cos you know im right but if you do i applaud you . I understand what you are saying and if you were his coach then fair enough but WHY drone on and on about what he does wrong when he has nothing to do with you ?? Ive noticed recently IMHO your beginning to get too big for your boots and think your better than you are . YOUR NOT! !

Anonymous said...

James sounds an awful lot like tbc....just saying!

Grumpy is one of the best grinders there is, hatersgonahate


Chad W. said...

One of the best posts I've seen you make. Too bad Tony won't listen.

"James" and TBC write very similarly. Hmmmmm...

Anonymous said...

Please don't tap the glass

sevencard2003 said...

thanks to grump for his useful info, but as most people who know me know, (and all the readers u have who have no idea who tony is) my problem really isnt the poker, tonite i am getting ready to update my blog, but looked at urs first, tonite i won $400+ at poker between osheas and ceasers, but am going back to my room out $500 again because of that goddamn VBJ machine at slots of fun. MY PROBLEM ISNT REALLY ANY OF THESE POKER RELATED THINGS, ITS MY DISCIPLINE TO NOT DO WHAT I KNOW I SHOULDNT.

Wine Guy said...

Personally, TBC can jump in the lake for all I care. I don't mean to be totally disrespectful, but I stopped visiting AVP when his became all people talked about. I digress.

Grump, as always a very insightful and thought provoking article. I am in the said group of recreational players (but wish to get better). I will be printing out your recent article and hilighting the items I find in my game that you mention..Well done.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Maybe Mike Caro isn't the only one who should be writing books!

Anonymous said...

All that thoughtful work by grump (great job btw) and TBC comes on here and dismisses ALL OF IT!!!!

What a loser!

You suck at poker Tony.......pre-flop all in scared playing shover!!!

angeroo said...

lol'd: "if I wanted to try to make an exhaustive catalog."

astrobel said...

Yet many successful online young stars openly discuss strategy after each and every hand.

Tony Bigcharles said...

according to Koala, my games improved since he last seen me. i asked him HOW tonight, and he said "uve opened up ur range"