Friday, November 07, 2008

The Geometry of Poker

The Geometry of PokerTwo more days and the “November Nine” will finally get back at it over at the Rio. I remember being very disappointed back in early May when those rumors about having a delayed final table were finally confirmed. I was about to go cover my first World Series of Poker. I’d scheduled my return flight on July 17, planning to be there to watch the final table go down (whether or not I’d be involved in covering it). Then came the news.

No way for me to be back in Vegas this weekend, so I’m feeling some vague disappointment again at not being able to see how it all finishes up. I suppose I have gotten to “know” the nine players a bit more than I would have had the table been played back in July. I even interviewed the chip leader, Dennis Phillips, something I surely wouldn’t have been able to do without the delay.

Even so, as Lou Krieger was writing about this week, the planned hype has been fairly underwhelming. Not much in the way of non-poker media coverage, other than perhaps some extra local coverage for each of the nine (as Phillips told me about in his case).

There has been some, scant “mainstream” coverage here and there, if one looks for it. For example, there was an interesting article in The New York Times on Monday about Ylon Schwartz, the 38-year-old chess master who currently sits in fifth place with 12.5 million chips.

I’d heard Schwartz interviewed on a couple of podcasts, where he’s definitely come off as an interesting character. Kind of a hippy type, having worked a succession of low-paying jobs before getting into chess where he excelled, then poker where it sounds like he’s had an up-and-down career. Has cashed a dozen times in WSOP events, though, including more than few tourneys where he’d come close to final tables before.

In those podcast interviews, Schwartz was asked about how chess compares to poker, and the subject comes up again in the New York Times piece. In each case, Schwartz especially emphasizes two parallels.

The first is how both games reward players with good memories. “Chess players are trained to have excellent memories,” says Schwartz in the NYT article. In his interview with Phil Gordon on The Poker Edge (the 10/31/08 episode), Schwartz elaborates that chess players memorize many, many openings and endgames, as well as the history with a particular opponent, and thus must be able to draw on those memories to recognize what one’s adversary might be up to.

That parallel seems fairly understandable. The other one Schwartz makes is perhaps somewhat less straightforward (pun intended). As the author of the NYT article reports, “He said that both games have geometrical aspects. In chess, it is the shape and size of the board and positions of the pieces. In poker, it is the positions of the players betting on the hand and the number of chips they have.”

For those of us who play a lot of poker but have only a rudimentary knowledge of chess, that explanation of the poker’s “geometrical aspects” might not be crystal clear. Indeed, when I first heard him bring it up in the podcasts, I thought he might be using the word “geometrical” in the same way Harrington and Robertie do in the Harrington on Cash Games books, where they talk about the betting in no-limit hold’em being “geometrical” insofar as the bets increase dramatically from street to street (essentially using the word to indicate a steep progression, not to refer to physical space).

But that’s not what Schwartz is talking about. In the Phil Gordon interview, Schwartz elaborated a bit more on the comparison:

“Poker’s a very geometrical game,” Schwartz told Gordon. “You have to slice through a certain portion of a pie to get to a player you may feel is weak. You have to make bets and pot size properly to maybe carve out an angle to that player. And chess is also geometrical. You’re constantly trying to figure out ways to gain space and take over your opponent’s territory.”

That explanation makes a bit more sense to me. Indeed, just yesterday I had a session of PLO where I’d spotted a particularly weak player sitting to my right, and thus became very conscious about trying to size bets and maneuver my way into pots where I could challenge him heads up. Eventually, thanks to his having enjoyed a few very fortunate hands against others at the table, he’d built up a decent-sized stack, thus making him all the more inviting a target.

There are other parallels between chess and poker, such as the need for patience. And important differences, too, such as the fact that chess is a game of “complete information” while poker is not. I do like that point, though, about the “geometrical” aspects of poker. That idea of trying to “carve out an angle” or “gain space” is definitely applicable, I think.

2008 World Series of Poker Main Event final table, chip stacksIn a way, the importance of poker’s “geometry” has been further underscored by the decision not to redraw for the seating at the final table until right before they start up again on Sunday morning. As most of the players have noted in their interviews, that will be a huge factor -- at least as important as stack sizes (if not more) -- that will influence how the tourney will go.

Will definitely be following my buds’ hand-for-hand coverage over on PokerNews. Wish there was a pay-per-view live telecast or some other way to bridge even further this “space” between myself and that final table. Oh, well. I guess we have to live with the angle ESPN has carved out here.

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Anonymous Frank Wolfe said...

Hey Shamus,

Get article as usual. Just wanted to let you know I saw on the ESPN site yesterday that BluffRadio was going to do a live audiocast beginning Sunday morning Pacific time. I think there is supposed to be a link to it from the WSOP site.

11/07/2008 9:06 AM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Excellent -- thanks for the tip, Frank!

11/07/2008 9:42 AM  
Anonymous Alex said...

It's really an excellent article! Good job!

11/13/2008 2:35 PM  

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