Saturday, February 11, 2012

G. Gordon Liddy sets an example

I was playing at the Luxor tonight. A guy joined the table that looked so much like G. Gordon Liddy that I had to stare for a while before I could convince myself that it wasn't actually him.* He not only had the same build and facial structure, but he had the shaved head and Tom Selleck moustache, too. I was tempted to challenge him to a contest of who could hold his hand over a candle flame for the longest to find out if it was him or not. You can see him (sort of) on the right in the photo above.

I don't remember playing with him before, but he is clearly a local nit--the archetypal nut-peddler that everybody warns you means serious business when he bets or raises.

I had A-A under the gun and raised to $10. One caller, then Liddy raised to $35. Hmm. This was the first three-bet he had done in the two hours or so we had been playing--and he was doing it against my UTG raise. All by itself, this fact narrowed his hand range incredibly far: About 90% chance he has aces or kings. The other 10% (and that's being generous) is queens and A-K, both much less likely than the Big Two. I could narrow it even further, in fact. Given that I had two of the four aces in the deck, it was six times more likely that he had kings than aces.

A fourth player called the $35, so this was starting to look like we were going to have a big, multiway pot. I started salivating. After nonchalantly wiping the drool from my chin, I slid forward two stacks of $50 each to add to the previous $10. A bet of $110 was not only conveniently about three times Liddy's bet, but had the added advantage of being about half of his remaining stack. (I started the hand with about $320, and had him covered.) I hoped that he would decide that if he was going to put in half his stack, he might as well put in the whole thing--or, alternatively, that he would just call and then feel pot-committed when I moved in on the flop.

First caller folded. Liddy thought for a bit, counting and stacking and restacking his chips. I couldn't tell if he was considering a shove or a fold. He well might have had both in his mind as legitimate options. He finally settled on a call. Fourth player dropped out.

As the dealer scooped the chips into the middle of the table, I was exerting my mental powers on him: Don't flop a king, don't flop a king, don't flop a king. I really wanted there not to be an ace, either, so that Liddy would be more likely to commit his stack, but that plea to the universe was made with an order of magnitude less intensity than the no-king one.

The flop was 3-3-4 rainbow. Of all the flops that do not improve pocket aces, that may be the very best that one can see. Absolutely perfect, utterly nonthreatening. "I'm all in."

And now the sweat began. Liddy was quiet and still, but obviously in some psychological distress. After a minute or so he broke the silence: "I know that you're good enough to know exactly what I have. So the fact that you go all in while knowing that means that you can only have one hand." Neither I nor anybody else at the table responded to this observation, and his silent vigil resumed. His only other sound was quietly adding up what the pre-flop bets had been to get an estimate of the pot size, then counting his own remaining chips--about $135.

Finally he let out a big breath and said, "You have aces. That's all there is to it. I have to fold." And with that, he turned his kings face up and slid them back to the dealer.

To his left was a young stereotypical European internet player, who had been waiting out this drama with obvious impatience. The kid's eye bugged out of his skull, and he said, "You're folding?! How can you fold that?"

Liddy was unperturbed by having his decision questioned. Matter-of-factly, without defensiveness or irritation, he replied, "He has aces. I have two outs. I'm not going to put in another hundred dollars drawing to two outs." Eurokid smirked and said, "You have to call there." Liddy brushed him off. "I know you couldn't fold here, but it's the right move. In fact, I was close to throwing it away before the flop." I believe him 100%. His tone was not defiant or argumentative--just supremely confident. It was the voice of a man who had made a difficult decision, and didn't like having to do it, but was at peace with what he had done.

I was seriously impressed. I don't know if I would have saved my last money the way that he did, after investing half my stack. I think coming to the conclusion that I had pocket aces was relatively straightforward for him, as was arriving at the obvious implication that that conclusion required a fold. But actually carrying out what he knew needed to be done was agonizing and took some mustering of his considerable internal fortitude.

The best episode of the World Poker Tour I ever saw was in the first season, with Paul Phillips heads-up against Mel Judah. Judah had fought back from a short stack to have a small chip lead. Then in the decisive hand they both had straights on the river, but Judah's was the nuts. Phillips had the dummy end. Judah moved all in, which was a massive overbet to a small pot. Phillips deliberated for several minutes, and they did not edit the tape. You see him talking to himself, trying to get some read off of Judah, sweating profusely, debating whether Judah would have taken the line he did if he had the only cards that beat him (Phillips). Meanwhile, in the voiceover, Mike Sexton ticks off for Vince Van Patten (and for the home audience) all the clues that Phillips has that Judah has him beat. It was one of the most cogent and insightful pieces of analysis I ever heard him do, and he was exactly right. Van Patten was much more sympathetic with the dilemma Phillips was in. He acknowledged Sexton's points, but then said, "But how do you fold a straight when you're heads-up?" Sexton's response was classic, and I've never forgotten it: "It's easy, Vince. You just pick up your cards and throw them in the muck." (Phillips didn't see it that way. He called and the tournament was over.)

Many times I've been faced with the painful conclusion that I'm beat and have to fold, abandoning some small fortune in chips in the pot. In such situations, Sexton's words come back to my mind: "Just pick up your cards and throw them in the muck." It hurts, but you make that one small physical motion, and it's done, like ripping off a Band-Aid.

It seems to me that this is a lesson that Mr. Liddy (or whatever his real name is) has learned well. He didn't care what anybody else would do, nor what anybody else thought of his decision. He simply was not going to throw good money after bad, once he convinced himself that his read of my hand was correct.

I did not show my cards. I thought it was strategically better to let Liddy, the kid, and the others continue to wonder if his certitude would have been vindicated. As a general rule, leaving opponents feeling psychologically off-balance and unsure of themselves is more effective than satisfying their curiosity.

But an hour or so later, after I racked up my chips and bade the table good night, I stopped by Liddy's seat and told him, sotto voce, "You were absolutely right. Very impressive laydown." He gave me a quick nod and a terse, "Thank you." I thought he deserved to know--though his confidence in himself was such that I'm not sure it really added anything to his perception of what had transpired.

*It has absolutely no connection to the poker tale, but I'm suddenly remembering a funny moment from the real Liddy. Many years ago I saw him on a late-night TV talk show. He and the host (Carson? I can't remember for sure) somehow got talking about guns. The host asked him if he owned any guns. He said, "As a convicted felon, I am legally prohibited from owning firearms. [Pause.] Mrs. Liddy, however, has an extensive collection."

Addendum, February 11, 2012

I found that World Poker Tour episode online here. The final two hands start at about the 37:00 mark. It's been years since I watched it, so this gives you a chance to see whether my memory of the action and dialog in my description above was accurate. (I got some details wrong--e.g., it was early in the second season, not the first, and Judah's straight was the second nuts rather than the nuts--but the general flavor of it was about right, I think.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Poker gems, #448

Gavin Griffin, in Card Player magazine column, February 8, 2012 (vol. 25, #3), page 36.

The Omaha table at your local casino is usually populated by the oldest and crankiest individuals in the room. I'm not sure whether Omaha draws these types or if you just age faster and get crankier the more you play the game.


I think it's completely unfair that with all the hands of cards I've played over the years, I've never managed to make a Royal Fizzbin. Live poker is so rigged.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Attention, readers in New York

Ira Glass is hosting a charity tournament Saturday. See details here:

The min raise

Last night I was playing at the Golden Nugget with the visiting Lightning36. He lives in my hometown and works at one of the colleges I attended, so it's always good to catch up a bit with him when he's in town.

So I have Ah-Ks in early position and raise to $8. Three people call me. The flop is all hearts, Q-8-3. With the nut flush draw, I like how this looks. I bet $20, about 2/3 of the pot. One fold, then another player raises to $40. Another fold and it's back to me, heads-up.

The pot is about $90, and it costs me only $20 to call, giving me 4.5:1 pot odds. There are nine cards that the dealer can find in the deck to make my flush, and 47 unknown cards, so the probability of hitting on the turn is 9/47, or 19%, which is 5.2:1. Even if I have no implied odds--i.e., my opponent won't put in another dime if the flush comes and it scares him--I have favorable odds to make this call correct.

As soon as I have put in another $20, the dealer peels off the 4 of hearts. Nutterific! I had a feeling that that was going to be an action-killer, because his raising range probably did not include any hands with which he would have liked to see a fourth heart come. I was right--he checked it back to me.* That pretty much sealed the conclusion that he hated that card.

Fifth street was a blank. I led out for $55 into the $110 pot, hoping that it was small enough to tempt a call. But he thought long and hard, in apparent agony, before finally mucking face-up his pocket 8s (flopped set).

And thus we see the chief problem with the minimum raise: It almost never accomplishes whatever purpose the raise had.

Here he presumably wanted me to fold, but the size of his raise actually meant that a fold would have been mathematically incorrect.

Let's consider some other reasons that one raises.

1. As a bluff, when you sense weakness. But a min-raise also looks weak, and may just induce an over-the-top re-bluff.

2. To price out draws. But as this example shows, a min-raise often fails to accomplish that, because it sets the price of the draw temptingly low.

3. To build the pot when you have the best hand. But if that's your goal, why be so chintzy? Put in some serious money instead and hope for a call.

4. As a probe, to "see where you are." But a min-raise often doesn't clarify the situation for you. In this case, a fold would have told him that I completely missed the flop and had nothing, but my call left him in the dark as to whether I had an overpair with no heart, or was drawing to the flush. That uncertainty is what gave him the agonizing decision when I put him to the test on the river. Had he made his raise more substantial, the first advantage is that I might have given up the hand, knowing that he was unlikely to stack off if I hit. The second advantage is that he could be more confident that I was not calling with, say, pocket kings with no heart, making his later decision much more clear.

Like any poker move, the min-raise has a place. But it's really a very small niche. It's a specialty tool to be used in a few specific, rare situations. For example, you have a monster hand, know that an opponent is weak, and a minimum raise is the most you can possibly hope to squeeze out of him. Or you have an overly aggressive opponent whom you have reason to believe will read a min-raise as weak, when you actually have him crushed; the min-raise in that situation is a trap that you hope will induce a reraise that will get him pot-committed in bad shape. Or you have a lock on the hand and a whole raft of callers to somebody's initial bet; a min-raise may be the best way to swell the pot by giving every single one of those callers temptation to put more chips in when they're drawing dead.

How often do situations arise in which the min-raise is the optimal move? In my view, it's rare. I doubt I put in a min-raise more than a couple of times a month.

Imagine that you've produced a gadget that you want to sell, and you have to determine the price. If you set it too low, you'll sell a ton, but you might actually lose money if revenues are below your costs. If you set the price too high, you'll make a handsome profit with each sale, but sales will be slower than they would be if the price were lower. There is a perfect price somewhere in the middle that optimizes your profit, at the top of a bell-shaped curve of price versus profit. Finding that sweet spot is the key. Large corporations have whole divisions of financial wizards whose only job is finding optimal prices for their products.

When you bet and raise in poker, you are, in effect, offering your hand for sale. You need to set the price to maximize profit. Sometimes the way to do that is by going all-in, if you think your opponent has a second-best hand and can't get away from it, or is unusually loose and calls anything. But if you made every raise all-in, you'd lose your shirt, because most of the time worse hands won't call you and you'll make zero, and once in a while you'll get called by a better hand and lose everything. So that should not be your default or most usual raise strategy.

Similarly, if you habitually min-raise, you're setting your price much too low. Sure, you'll get called a lot--but that includes spots where you really don't want a call, and it leaves money on the table in most of the spots where you do want a call.

For any raise you make, you need to have in mind a clear purpose. What are your goals? What better hands do you think will fold? What worse hands do you think will call? Most importantly, what raise amount will make the most money? I think you'll find that the smallest raise is almost never the right tool.

Min-raises do not lead to max-profits.

Oh, about that image above: It's Min, an Egyptian god of fertility. I did an image search for "min," having no idea what I might find. When I saw that phallic image, and paired it in my mind with the concept of "raise," well, my 12-year-old self took control and decided that had to be the illustration of the day. It is, quite literally, the Min raise.

*One could certainly argue for a lead-out bet on this turn. After all, I have a big hand and want a big pot. The obvious, straightforward move is most often the right one, and putting more money into a juicy pot when one has the best possible hand is certainly the obvious play. My instantaneous analysis, however, was that calling the flop raise and then leading out was too transparent for having the flush. My plan was to let him bet at it again and check-raise; if he didn't bet, then having passed on the turn, a bet on the river might look like I'm working a non-flush overpair. That is, if there is X amount that he's going to be willing to call, he might be more prone to do so on the river after a check-check turn than immediately after the scare card hits. That was my thinking at the time.

However, there is this strong counter-argument: If he has a set or two pair, he will actually be more willing to put in his call of X amount on the turn than on the river, because he can still hope to improve to a full house, a possibility that is foreclosed after the last card is on the board. Furthermore, if the board does pair on the river, I'm suddenly in a very awkward spot. I will have missed my chance to win the pot when I had the best of it, and will kick myself for giving him the free card. In retrospect, I'm inclined to believe that leading out on the turn probably would have been better, but I think the pros and cons come out close enough that if it was a mistake, it was a relatively small one.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Candidates on poker

The Epic Poker web site has put up two pieces in recent days about the presidential candidates' positions on online poker (and/or online gaming more generally).

First is Jen Newell's short assessment of where the candidates stand. Not surprisingly, Ron Paul is, as always, for maximal personal freedom, so he opposes not only prohibitions on online gaming, but any governmental attempt to control the Internet. Also not surprisingly, Mitt Romney is opposed to any expansion of gambling. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have not taken official positions. Which, if you ask me, means that they can't be counted on to be supporters. Also, given their naked appeals to hard-core religious conservatives, who think they are tasked by God to impose their moral values on the rest of the world by force, it's hard to believe either one would ever come out in favor of online gaming.

Last in the "not surprisingly" category is candidate Barack Obama, who has never lifted a finger to help poker players or even bothered to promise that he would. (Not that his promise means anything, given the appalling rate at which he breaks them.) And if you think he gives a rat's ass about personal freedom as a general principle, well, you just haven't been paying attention the last four years, have you?

Second is Dan O'Brien's opinion piece, explaining his support of Ron Paul. He nails the reasons that poker players specifically, and fans of personal liberty generally, should vote for Paul.

My only disagreement with O'Brien comes at the end of his essay, where he says that if Paul is not on the ballot in November he won't vote. Hey, why not vote for Gary Johnson, who is likely to be the Libertarian Party candidate, and thus on the ballot in all 50 states? Sure, he's probably not going to win, but why not use your vote to show your enthusiasm for freedom, rather than sit out the election? Johnson is as good as Paul on leaving people alone to live their lives the way they choose to, which includes playing poker online. As Newell reminds us, Johnson was the only candidate to show up at the World Series of Poker to make an explicit appeal to poker players for their support. He's solidly, unquestionably on our side.

Addendum, February 7, 2012

One of my Twitter followers told me that Santorum was on local channel 3's show "Face to Face" with reporter Jon Ralston last week. I found the January 31 program online here:

Ralston asks him directly about online gaming, and Santorum's response is completely negative. He is opposed to it, thinks it's "dangerous." The discussion starts at the 15:00 mark (note that the counter runs backwards), and goes on for about three minutes.

Santorum has gone on record as saying, "The essential issue in this race is freedom." By his own standard, then, he loses. He is decidedly not a champion of freedom. He has openly denounced the "idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do...that we shouldn't get involved in the bedroom (and) we shouldn't get involved in cultural issues."

So if you relish the thought of having the federal government force your most personal decisions to go just the way Rick Santorum thinks they ought to, by all means, throw him your vote. Me? I'd vote for a mummified Richard Nixon before I'd support a would-be tyrant like Santorum.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Two Plus Two involved in Gary Johnson campaign

I'm on the email list for Gary Johnson's Nevada campaign. In one I received just a few minutes ago from Jared Lord, the state campaign director, I noticed this interesting tidbit at the end: "Two Plus Two Poker has been very kind to donate office space in Henderson. Right now the space is being underutilized, as I've been working from home...."

I guess sharing office space is OK, but maybe I should warn him about looking in Sklansky's glove compartment.*

*If that reference is too obscure, see here.

Playing the 2-4 on 2/4

I'm writing at the close of February 4, a date traditionally abbreviated in the United States as 2/4. Naturally, it is the holiest of holy days on the liturgical calendar of the Sacred Order of the Deuce-Four.

I spent the evening playing at Hooters, and was disappointed that my faithfulness was not being rewarded with the sight of the Blessed Hand on its holy day. But in retrospect I see that the poker gods were merely testing my patience and resolve. I know this because of how my faith was rewarded in the end.

About 2 1/2 hours into the session, there it was: 2-4 offsuit. I was under the gun. I raised to $7 and got three callers. The flop came 4-7-K. I bet $18, and all three opponents folded.

Of course I don't usually show my cards if I don't have to, but a duty has devolved upon me to spread the Gospel of the Deuce-Four. On its special day, I would be unforgivably shirking my responsibility as an emissary of The Hand if I kept its light under a bushel, to borrow the biblical phrase. So I showed my hand, explaining that this was my favorite hand, and always a winner.

There were the usual scoffs and snorts that I have come to expect when I deliver this message in public--much like Noah's warnings of the impending destruction of the earth was dismissed and ridiculed. I'm used to it.

I composed a message on Twitter announcing that the prophecies had been fulfilled, and the Deuce-Four had prevailed on its appointed day. I had literally just hit "send" on my phone when I picked up my hole cards and there it was again, the loveliest two cards any dealer ever puts together.

This time I called a raise to $11. The flop was 2-J-4. My opponent checked. I bet $15. He called. The turn was another 4, and I lo I did see the heavens open and hear a host of angels sing. Yes, it was my sacred privilege to behold the Mighty Deuce-Four in all its glory making a full house against mine enemies. It's a humbling experience to be in the presence of a genuine miracle as it transpires.

My opponent checked again. I bet $30, and he called again.

Fifth street came a 6, and my opponent checked a third time. I bet $55, and he called. He flipped his cards over immediately after saying "call," showing me A-J. Top pair, top kicker. Nice hand, sir, but there's something you should know.

Another player had obviously believed my earlier speech, because as I was reaching for my cards, he asked, "You have your favorite hand?" Yes. Yes I do. I showed, and there was much rejoicing.

With this even greater proof now before the mocking fools, I reiterated my point about this being the most powerful hand in poker. This time, nobody snickered.

About five minutes later, the guy on my left was the only caller of a pre-flop raise (from, coincidentally, somebody who had already identified himself to me as one of my readers). He nudged me and quietly said, "I'm giving your hand a try here."

His faith was rewarded. The flop was 4-4-10. His opponent bet, my disciple called. I don't remember what fourth street was, but the original raiser now checked, and our new convert bet, triggering a fold. I told him, "You have to show it." He did. Now the former mockers had turned to admirers. I just smiled and told the table, "This is what I've been trying to tell you."

One orbit later it was time for me to rack up my winnings and head home. As my parting words, I reminded the players that they had only about two more hours to play 2-4 on 2/4, when it has extra-special powers. I can only imagine what interesting play occurred after I left.