Friday, February 05, 2016

Staying Put for the Super Bowl

I remember some twenty-plus years ago living in Chapel Hill and going to graduate school. After getting an undergraduate degree there I continued on for the M.A., then would make a change for the doctorate afterwards (going to Indiana). Several years later I would return to my home state of North Carolina to live and teach.

In other words I’d been a lifelong Tarheel fan by the time the ’93-’94 season came around. The team’s run to a championship that year remains vivid in my memory, something I wrote a little about over on Ocelot Sports a couple of years ago and also chatted with Dr. Pauly about on a podcast we did for the 20th anniversary of the final game between UNC and Michigan.

One part of that memory that stands out was the way my friends not only found it necessary to watch all of the tournament games at the same place (one friend’s apartment), but for all of us to sit in the same seats as well as the Heels kept winning each game.

I recall more and more people joining us as they proceeded through the tournament, with about 20 crammed in the small living room for the final. But the core group all kept our same seats so as not to disturb the spell of Carolina’s streak. As my buddy the host explained, “You can’t prove it doesn’t have an effect.”

At the time I vaguely thought about the logic class I’d taken as an undergrad and phrases like “proving a negative” and “proof of impossibility” and “correlation does not imply causation.” I played cards occasionally then, but this was before I’d get heavily into poker and the study of the game, and so I don’t think I knew about the “gambler’s fallacy” then, or I’d have probably thought of that, too.

My buddy Bob (a.k.a. the “Poker Grump”) who regularly writes strategy articles for PokerNews has written smartly about the latter. In “What is the ‘Gambler’s Fallacy’ and How Does It Apply to Poker?” he explains how it works, starting with the example of a roulette player allowing the phenomenon of a ball landing on red nine straight times influence him to think that has something to do with what will happen on spin number ten.

Superstitions among sports fans aren’t quite the same thing, although they share a common lack of rationality. A poll conducted by Associated Press-Ipsos several years ago found that a little more than 20% of sports fans “say they do things in an attempt to bring good luck to their favorite team or avoid jinxing them.”

The Super Bowl is Sunday, and Vera and I have already been invited to a couple of viewing parties. As readers of the blog surely have picked up on by now, I have a rooting interest in the game, one that matches where I was with the Heels back in the spring of 1994. In this case my fandom has also been building for decades and through a long, exciting season’s worth of games, most of which have gone my team’s way.

I’ve watched all of those games this year from the couch here -- from the same side, actually, where I’m sitting and typing this post.

I’m thinking it might be nice just to stay at home on the farm on Sunday.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

On the Square

My Pop gave me a call about a week-and-a-half ago. He had a question for me. Having retired, he’s living down in Florida now in a pretty great community where he’s spending a lot of his time fishing, playing golf, playing music (he’s a guitar player), and having fun.

A Super Bowl gathering is being planned there where he’s living, and the organizers of it had an idea to raise a little bit of money for use in future activities. They’re going to do a “Super Bowl Squares” pool, and while he had an idea what that was about, he was wondering if I could describe to him what it involved.

I was able to explain it to him fairly well, noting how I remembered at last year’s PokerStars Caribbean Adventure a game had been organized during the playoff games one weekend. You probably know how the game works, too.

A 10 x 10 grid is created with the rows and columns each numbered 0 through 9. Players contribute whatever the entry fee is to the pool, then put their name or initials in one of the squares. Each side goes with one of the teams, so, say, the rows are the Panthers and the columns are the Broncos (as above).

Then at the end of each quarter, whatever the score is determines who wins that quarter’s worth of the cabbage. Say the first quarter ends with the score 13-7 in favor of Carolina -- that would mean whoever had the square in row 3, column 7 would win the quarter (the last digit in each team’s score). Same happens at end of second, third, and fourth quarters, too, with the pool divided up among the four winners.

Unfortunately for him there’s no choosing squares -- they’ll just draw ’em out of hat -- otherwise there would be some strategy involved. Upon learning how the game worked, he noted how it’d be great to draw 0/0, then for the game to go to overtime as a scoreless tie, thus giving that square all four quarters. I noted how there ain’t gonna be a scoreless tie on Sunday, but he knew that already.

Curious, I looked around a little and found an article on The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective website offering “The Optimal Strategy for Playing Squares.” Of course, these were the guys who also published something last July suggesting the Miami Dolphins would be making the Super Bowl this year (and giving the Carolina Panthers a 22% chance of making the playoffs, ranking them 22nd out of 30 in the NFL), so I suppose we should take this squares advice with a grain of salt.

Even if the game won’t be a scoreless tie after four quarters, the 0/0 square is actually one of the best squares to get (unsurprisingly). 0/3, 0/4, 0/7, 3/0, 3/3, 3/4, 3/7, 4/0, 4/3, 4/4, 4/7, 7/0, 7/3, 7/4, and 7/7 are also good ones. Meanwhile pretty much any square with a 2 or a 5 in it is terrible to get, with the ones with a 1, 6, 8, or 9 also pretty bad -- no shocker there for those who know how scoring typically goes in NFL games. That said, the new 33-yard extra point increasing the chance of a miss (and perhaps encouraging teams to go for two) may affect things a bit this year.

The Harvard article actually factors in the favorite-versus-underdog variable to create its chart, although I think that’s probably more fiddling than you’d really need to think about when picking a square (if allowed to pick your own). Even so, for them the 7/0 square in which the 7 is the favorite side is worth about twice what the 0/7 square would be, so perhaps it is something to consider.

Would taking the faves/dogs distinction into account be how the sharps play squares?

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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Searching The Simpsons

Was alerted earlier today to this new website called Frinkiac which purports to have three million searchable screen captures from The Simpsons. Just enter a word or phrase and if there are any matches it quickly delivers the images and lines for you, complete with season/episode info and timestamps.

Indeed, it will likely find a match no matter what word or phrase you enter. After all, the show has been around for more than a quarter-century now, with nearly 600 episodes.

Entering the word “poker” brings back more than 50 moments from the show, although there are a number of duplicates in there. In truth, I think it amounts to about eight or so actual poker references total.

Here are three good ones, turned into “memes” with the click of a button:


Of all of the ones that come back, the only one I really remember is of Homer freaking out over one of Cassius M. Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings, which came up during one of the first “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween eps.

The scene with the painting was just one of those little interstitials between the episodes in the anthology show, in this case framed by Homer wandering through an art gallery. “We come now to the final and most terrifying painting of the evening,” Homer explains before delivering the above lines.

He goes on to say “We had a story to go with this painting, but it was far too intense.” Now that I think about it, there is something unnerving about dogs playing poker.

Anyhow, if you’re a Simpsons fan you might go crank up the Frinkiac and see what your searches turn up.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Here Comes HoldemX

I played a few games of this new HoldemX today. There’s a site up and running now where you can create an account and play. I think the site actually just launched, with this being called the “alpha version” of the game meant to introduce it and get feedback from players.

This article on PokerNews gives a bit of background about the game and a little on how it fits into this larger vision of Alex Dreyfus and the Global Poker League. The article points out how the game combines hold’em and other card-based games like Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone (about which I was writing a little here a while back), and Uno.

It also explains how the game involves both the regular 52-card deck used in hold’em and (in this version) a 15-card “Discovery Deck.” If you go over to the site and mess around as I did, you’ll see these are listed as “Xcards.” They’re essentially game-changing cards, letting players do things like change or add to their hole cards, change community cards in various ways (including adding sixth street), and so on.

Here’s a picture of the 15 “Xcards” to give you an idea (click to enlarge):

Hands are played like hold’em, with extra rounds inserted along the way where players are able to employ those “Xcards” to change how the hand is going. It’s a bit like playing hold’em with wild cards, but with a lot more variables greatly affecting strategy. The games are timed as well meaning you can get through one in just a few minutes.

Dreyfus is quoted in the article explaining how this is in fact a rudimentary version of the game using “only” 15 of these “Xcards” or “Discovery Deck” cards. The idea, he says, is to provide “an educational experience to give players a chance to play around with the fundamental mechanisms of the game before flooding the platform with multiple deck options, special cards, and other features.”

The article also emphasizes that the game is not intended to be played for money -- only chips. “Hearthstone is not about money: it is about fun, special effects, and skills,” explains Dreyfus, who envisions HoldemX to function similarly (and not to compete with poker).

The tagline is “Poker Enhanced,” but I’m not sure what poker players are going to think of the game. It seems like you’d have to have an interest in poker to want to try it out, but the differences from regular hold’em -- or even from most forms of poker -- are so great even in this “simple” early version, you’d have to have a more substantial interest in games and problem-solving to want to play.

A decent percentage of poker players do like these sort of challenges, but they also like playing cards for money, so that, too, seems like another hurdle HoldemX will have to clear.

I may get back on there at some point just to mess around some more. If you do, let me know what you think.

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Monday, February 01, 2016

Trump and the Poker Analogy

A friend forwarded me this new article appearing over on the Time magazine website over weekend, one offering to explain Donald Trump’s unorthodox campaign strategy (a topic I was discussing here last week).

The key to unpacking the mystery of Trump is suggested in the title: “How Poker Explains Trump’s Campaign.” The mildly clever piece has a couple of good moments, and author Alex Altman does demonstrate a good enough knowledge of poker strategy to speak knowledgeably when pursuing the politics-and-poker analogy.

Nothing super novel here, of course, as politicians and campaigns have been likened to poker for, oh, two centuries or so. I did enjoy going through the list of poker strategies, though, and recalling how practically every one of them has already come up in the course I’m teaching again this semester, “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Politics, and Poker.”

The article starts out hailing Trump as “the best poker player in the Republican field.” Then -- with a nod toward Trump’s casino-owning background -- it goes on to catalogue some of the moves he’s “ripped from the poker player’s handbook.”

The very first one -- “Be unpredictable” -- was a cornerstone of Nixon’s own strategy as a poker player, in his campaigns, and while in office.

In our class we are constantly quoting Nixon in an 1983 interview complaining about various traits leaders lack, including the understanding of how valuable it can be to keep one’s next move hidden.

“One of the problems... in foreign affairs particularly, in dealing with great leaders abroad, particularly those that are adversaries,” says Nixon, “[is] the almost insatiable tendency of American politicians to want to put everything out on the table. Their inability to know when to bluff, when to call, and above everything else, how to be unpredictable.”

That last point then earns some extra emphasis from Nixon.

“Unpredictability is the greatest asset or weapon that a leader can have.... And unless he’s unpredictable, he’s going to find that he loses a great deal of his power.”

Nixon’s campaigns were full of such “surprise” moments (and “dirty tricks”), as was his presidency with his frequent announcements and “big plays.”

The rest of the list about Trump’s poker-like tendencies on the campaign trail reads in a similarly familiar way, highlighting aggression, being able to “change speeds,” and fearless boldness. Regarding the latter, Altman includes the quote “In order to live, you must be willing to die,” attributing it only to poker players generally and not to the late Amir Vahedi (whom I think many of us would probably first think to credit with line).

There is one item on the list that seemed at first glance to be suggesting something a little different (and not a strategy on Nixon’s list) -- “Play in position.” But the explanation by Altman actually has nothing to do with position or acting last, but rather being selective when it comes to getting involved and vying for pots (such as when opting out of debating, as Trump did last week). “Tight is right” would probably have been a better header for this section.

In any case, I wouldn’t suggest Trump’s apparent poker sensibilities as he’s being attributed with having in the Time piece make him more like Nixon. Rather they make him more like practically every other politician who has ever gotten involved in the vote-getting game.

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Slow Roll with a Side of Schadenfreude

This morning I woke up to review some of what happened at the Aussie Millions Main Event while I was sleeping. There was still a couple of hours of play left to go, so I also turned on Jason Somerville’s Twitch stream to catch the end of Day 4 and see them play down to the final seven-handed table.

Reading back through Twitter, I saw the buzz about some of the excitement from earlier in the night, and later ended up going back to watch a few of the earlier hands. Probably the most talked-about moment involved a hand between Mikel Habb and Samantha Abernathy. Habb was eliminated in 15th in the hand, while Abernathy made it to Saturday’s final table.

In the hand Daryl Honeyman opened with a raise from UTG, and Habb -- who’d just won a hand and was chatting a bit -- made a just-over-the-minimum reraise the small blind while claiming he meant only to call. It was enough for Somerville to entertain the idea of an angle, a thought encouraged when we were shown Habb had pocket kings.

Abernathy then pushed all in from the big blind with a pair of sixes, forcing a quick fold from Honeyman. At that Habb took nearly a half-minute before calling, going through what appeared some theatrics as he held his head in his hands, then stood up for a while as if in deep thought over what to do.

Somerville described the show as a “slow roll,” and it was kind of hard not to think that to be an apt descriptor. The flop and turn changed nothing, but a six dramatically fell on the river -- a “six for justice,” said Somerville -- and Habb was eliminated.

The fact that Habb was standing with two fingers held up high (for victory?) when fifth street fell only seemed to add an extra layer of schadenfreude to the whole scene.

To give Habb a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, when watched out of context, it wasn’t wholly clear if it had been an out-and-out slowroll, or if perhaps he really was wondering about putting in the last of his stack with pocket kings. In fact, just looking back a little on the stream seemed to support the idea Habb was tighter than usual (but that tight... right?).

A little earlier there was a hand in which Habb had opened from the cutoff with A-Q-suited and was called by both Tino Lechich (button) who had K-J and Dylan Honeyman (big blind) with J-5 of spades. The flop came Q-4-2 with two spades to give Habb a pair of queens, but when checked to he checked as well. Lechich then fired a bet, then Honeyman raised with his flush draw. At that Habb folded his top pair, top kicker, with Somerville kind of amazed that he’d given up his hand.

You could tell from Habb’s table talk afterwards -- which included him telling everyone what he’d had -- that he was probably not as seasoned a player as the others, with the fold further underscoring the impression that he was playing especially tight, too. He talked a lot, actually, and in ways that caused him to stand out considerably from the rest of the players.

In any event, the back-and-forthing over Habb this morning reminded me how easy it is in poker to become conspicuous simply by playing in an unorthodox way, not following the usual etiquette or customs of the table or poker room, and/or perhaps being unsure about rules or the order of play.

I’m not referring to Habb at all here, but merely to the interesting and sometimes intimidating subculture of poker that can make things strange and potentially uncomfortable for newcomers. Meanwhile from the spectators’ point of view, such out-of-the-ordinary occurrences (like, say, slow rolling, intended or otherwise) tend to make the “show” a lot more interesting to watch.

Looking ahead to these several final tables coming up from Melbourne -- the $100K, the Main, then the $250K after that -- we probably won’t be seeing as much non-standard stuff going forward, although the poker should be on a high level. Will be watching for sure, either live or scrolling back on the stream.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Campaign Strategy and Button Mashing

Tonight comes another of the Republican presidential candidates’ debates, the seventh one so far. This one is in Des Moines, with the Iowa caucuses -- the first votes of the major parties’ primary season -- just a few days away on February 1.

The GOP debate would’ve been in the news this week, anyway, but is getting some extra attention thanks to current frontrunner Donald Trump’s announcement earlier this week he wouldn’t be participating due to his ongoing feuding with the host network, FoxNews.

The decision by Trump not to debate has inspired some discussion of campaign strategy, with pundits sharing all sorts of ideas regarding whether his non-participation will amount to a positive or a negative for Trump both in Iowa and going forward.

I find these discussions interesting to follow mostly because of how much time I’ve spent reading about and studying Richard Nixon’s various campaigns from the first 1946 Congressional campaign all of the way through his last 1972 run for reelection.

The “game” (as it were) has changed markedly, of course, with all of the old strategies mostly being inapplicable to today’s political landscape. That said, there are still analogues here and there, including the role of debates and whether they are good or bad for particular candidates.

Nixon, of course, famously welcomed the opportunity to debate John F. Kennedy in 1960, having experienced much success doing so versus various (less savvy) opponents in earlier campaigns. Then later in both 1968 and 1972, Nixon chose against participating in debates with Democratic candidates versus whom he was ahead in the polls, with most seeing those decisions as correctly made as far as risk-versus-reward was concerned.

As if to inspire such comparisons even further, at this very moment I’m seeing Evan Thomas, author of the recent Being Nixon: A Man Divided, popping up on FoxNews being asked what he thinks Nixon would think about Trump not debating. (Thomas unsurprisingly says he thinks Nixon would approve.)

Regarding Trump’s “strategy” (or lack thereof) as it relates to his decision not to attend the Iowa debate, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight tweeted a comment a couple of days ago that perhaps betrayed his own online poker-playing background:

“Still not sure if Trump is the most brilliant political tactician of his era or just a guy randomly mashing buttons,” opined Silver.

The comment evokes the idea of an amateurish or untutored poker player making what seem “random” decisions that don’t add up to a coherent understanding, contrasting that with a knowledgeable player (or “tactician”) whose unorthodox moves you’d have to trust as being part of a larger, complex design.

“Button-masher” perhaps seems to fit Trump (here involved deeply in his first serious political campaign) more readily than does “brilliant political tactician,” but I think like all of the candidates he probably falls somewhere in between these two extremes.

As did presidential candidates in earlier decades, too, for that matter.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Partial Information Game of Divided Attention

I’ve been spending a little bit of time off and on over the last couple of days watching Jason Somerville’s live streaming from the Aussie Millions over on his Twitch channel. Was up late last night doing other work, and so since the live stuff essentially happens overnight for those of us on Eastern time (and 16 hours behind Melbourne), it provided me a chance to keep the stream on as background.

Because I wasn’t wholly focused on watching the action, I was often just relying on Somerville’s (invariably good) commentary on hands, occasionally clicking on that tab to look up from my work and watch whenever it sounded like something interesting was going on. After a while I realized my own method was kind of emulating that of the players themselves who were playing at the feature table there on Day 2 of the Aussie Millions Main Event.

If you’ve watched any of the streaming, you know to what I’m referring. The action was on a half-hour delay, necessitated by the fact that the the hole cards were being shown. That meant most of those around the table were often looking at their phones at Somerville’s stream, taking advantage of the fact that they could learn more about how their opponents were playing by seeing their hole cards from earlier hands.

In other words, just like my own attention on the action was divided, so, too, was the attention of the players only partly on what was happening at that moment and otherwise focused on what went down a half-hour before, as revealed by the stream.

Somerville’s commentary was also sometimes incorporating the players’ discovery of each other’s hole cards from earlier hands. “It looks like Jeff Gross just found out he successively avoided Julius Colman’s set right before the break,” Somerville once noted as a new hand was being dealt, and when I looked up I saw Gross looking down at his phone while chatting with Colman about the hand.

Indeed, a half-hour before Gross had folded ace-queen following a 10-J-4 flop after Colman had bet (see the pic above), saying as he did he suspected Colman had pocket jacks. Now, watching the stream (see at left), Gross was discovering Colman indeed had a set, though with pocket tens.

I got to thinking about how it is a bit of work for the players to catch those moments on the stream, and of course if they’re involved in a new hand that distracts them further from following the action from a half-hour before. Also, it was clear that while most of the players at the table were checking their phones, not everyone was, and so that added another variable when it came to the information-gathering.

Would probably be best just to have the stream running on a screen near the table, much like the tournament clock. Not saying it’s a must (nor wanting to reengage the same old arguments about fairness and televised/streamed poker), although perhaps for final tables -- like, say, at the WSOP Main Event -- it should be considered.

Some tournament should try it, at least, just as an experiment. I’m sure it would get some attention, anyway. Or at least whatever attention most of us had left to give it while we were doing other things.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Drawing Dead

Last week we were discussing that story from the Aussie Millions of the woman having to leave a preliminary event early as she was about to give birth, and her husband being allowed to take over her stack. This week comes a story of a dead man playing poker at his own wake.

No shinola, it must be added (again).

You might have seen this item, currently being passed around and turning up on a few different sites. According to the story, a fellow named Henry Rosario Martinez of Barceloneta, Puerto Rico died last week at the age of 31. His family and friends then arranged to celebrate his life by playing poker at the funeral home, a game the deceased apparently enjoyed.

The unexpected twist, though, was the family having the funeral home prepare the body as though for an open-casket wake (embalming and dressing the corpse), then seating it at the table as well. There’s a short news clip from Noticias SIN reporting on the event, if you’re curious.

It sounds like some sort of odd one-off curiosity, although from reading around this sort of death-related theater-slash-rite isn’t that unheard of. There have been several other examples over last few years, enough for the practice to have picked up a name -- muerto para’o or “dead man standing.” Surfing around turns up various stories of the dead being posed sitting on a motorcycle, in a boxing ring, and even dressed as the Green Lantern.

Seem to be no end of puns for this one. Dead button. Dead man’s hand. Dead money. Will go with drawing dead, I guess.

All clichés, of course. Or, what George Orwell (who is dead) once described metaphors like these that are -- technically, he said -- dead.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Panthers Keep Pounding

Eight days ago I sat on my couch to watch the Carolina Panthers’ first playoff game, a division round matchup versus the Seattle Seahawks. Like all Panthers fans, I greatly enjoyed the first half during which our team dominated while storming out to a 31-0 lead.

At the half I moved to a different location to watch the rest of the game. We had a visitor over and while Vera entertained I parked it in a different room to watch the second half. Needless to say, things weren’t as comfortable in that environment as I watched Seattle come all of the way back to make it 31-24, with the Panthers having to recover an onside kick attempt by the Seahawks at the end to seal the win.

The comeback inspired a strategy article for PokerNews, titled “Football, Poker, and the Challenge of Trying to Keep a Big Lead.” It’s a theme I’ve written about before in various places -- that is, the strange discomfort experienced by some players when playing “from the front.”

Carolina obviously adopted a highly conservative strategy on both sides of the ball during that second half, going with run plays and low-risk passes on offense while mostly sticking to preventing long pass plays on defense while allowing short-to-medium gains that helped Seattle put together drive after drive.

In yesterday’s conference championship game, Carolina found itself in a similar spot by the half, up 24-7 and fairly dominating the Arizona Cardinals (surprisingly, I thought, given how evenly matched the teams appeared to have been). The second half then saw the Panthers adopt a different approach and remain more aggressive both offensively and defensively, and the result was another almost identical half, score-wise, as the final ended up 49-15.

I also adopted a different strategy yesterday, remaining right there on the couch from start to finish with no dramatic moves to watch from different locations. Like the Panthers, I decided to stick with what was working. Was a hugely satisfying game for Panthers fans, of course, and a nice finish to a home season that saw them win all 10 of their games at Bank of America Stadium.

Two whole weeks, now, to do whatever I have to do before Super Bowl L -- or, rather, Super Bowl 50 (as no one seems to want to hang that “L” on the sucker). Two weeks until I get right back on the couch again and stay put.

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