Thursday, May 30, 2013

Confounded by the Mad Genius of Poker

I’ve always liked Mike Caro as both a personality in poker and a good dispenser of strategy advice. I have a few of his books and like many players benefited from some of the ideas he’s shared over the course of more than three decades’ worth of writing about poker, highlighted early on by a contribution on five-card draw to the original Super/System in the late 1970s.

Caro is most famous for his Book of Poker Tells, a book which I read long ago although have to admit never really gleaned too much from as far as help at the table goes. (I’ve always been more of an online player than live, anyway.) I appreciate the book’s historical significance, though, and think that when you step back and consider Caro’s overall contributions to the game via his writings and ideas, they are substantial.

The “Mad Genius of Poker” is still writing, of course. His style tends toward what I would call “revelatory” in that he’s almost always aiming to produce these big “a-ha!” moments in his readers when it comes to explaining various ideas or frequently-encountered actions or situations at the table.

If you follow him on Twitter, you know that pretty much once a day he tweets links to pieces he has written -- many old, some new -- pointing to his always-under-construction website called “Poker1.” His tweets always come in the form of initiating that gesture to reveal of some hidden nugget of poker wisdom, with the articles then continuing in a similar vein.

For instance, today he tweeted “Astonishing poker truth about how to play aces in hold’em,” with a link following. Yesterday he tweeted a link to an article about “a common notion” in poker that turns out (he says) to be “horribly wrong.” That’s his favored and most frequently inhabited rhetorical position, namely, to function as a kind of poker detective who has unearthed the meaning of clues the rest of us have failed to notice.

As I say, I like Caro’s writings and style, and I think a lot of times the ideas he’s sharing are quite good and useful. Even in those instances when I don’t want to follow him down a particular path of reasoning, I still usually find what he’s saying to be interesting and thought-provoking in a constructive way.

Like I say, a lot of what Caro points us to in those tweets are pieces he’s written in the past. As far as new stuff goes, he does regularly contribute a column to Poker Player Newspaper, and usually there is also talking strategy or theory. However sometimes he branches out to address other topics, as he did a couple of weeks ago in an article in which he addresses “rampant” cheating in online poker and his considerable efforts -- unsuccessful thus far -- to do something about it.

“Time to go public,” Caro begins, again taking the position of someone who knows something the rest of us don’t, and who is now setting the stage for the sharing of his knowledge. He refers to his having been conducting a “behind-the-scenes campaign to protect online poker” from cheaters, noting that his campaign has failed.

“I believe that cheating is so rampant that many honest players, with superior skils, have no chance whatsoever of winning online,” states Caro. Knowing that some -- most (?) -- readers might respond skeptically, he then asks for patience while he explains why he believes what he does.

Unfortunately, Caro immediately becomes opaque again, vaguely referencing his study of “computer code” and other data connected to the “operations structures of five major poker sites” (identifying none). He’s done all of this work covertly, he tells us, “working secretly with these online poker sites and entities” like some sort of poker spy on a classified mission. Highlighting his investigation is anecdotal evidence of having lost while playing online poker at a higher rate than he believed to be “mathematically possible.”

The references to his losing session are as unclear as everything else, I’m afraid. So is the chronology, as it seems as though he’s referring to a session that took place at least six or seven years ago, possibly longer. I say that because after reporting his suspicions to the site and being told no evidence of cheating could be determined, he suggests his complaint to have been somehow uncannily prescient since cheating “scandals... eventually rocked the industry years later.”

Caro says his efforts to help the industry develop more accurate methods to detect cheating have been “stonewalled by mysterious forces deep within these organizations.” In other words, while he’s been given privileged access to sites’ “operations structures” where he has been “working secretly,” there’s still an inner circle deep in there somewhere where Caro hasn’t been allowed. No one seems interested in his new system, called Caro’s Online Poker Solutions (COPS), a name which he himself admits “probably is too cute by half.”

He concludes the piece by asking readers to help him and his colleague, Bill Handy, with their efforts, although once more he remains frustratingly imprecise about what exactly he wants others to do. He then signs off by saying he’ll “be adding more detail” on his website “in the near future.”

It’s kind of a baffling column, really, and like some of his “new/old” strategy pieces it’s hard to tell whether he wrote it recently or perhaps is sharing an idea he had many years ago. The fact that his follow-up PPN column appearing on the website this week doesn’t even address the same topic also makes it hard to figure out where Caro is coming from or where he is going.

It makes me think of a professor I once had in grad school who one day began a lecture saying “On September 16, 1958” (or some other date well in the past). As he paused before continuing, all of us in the seminar took the opportunity to jot down in our notebooks the words he just uttered. “On... September... 16... 1958....”

Finally he continued. “I had an idea,” he said.

He went on to explain the idea he’d had on September 16, 1958 was about the reading we’d been assigned that day, giving away with his opening the fact that he was reading from decades-old lecture notes. We all looked up at each other grinning, having been duped into thinking the date he’d referenced was somehow important enough for us to be writing down.

Sure, cheating in online poker is obviously an important issue worth talking about. But I don’t think Caro’s favored “revelatory” method really works so well with this particular topic, especially when he doesn’t ever quite get around to revealing anything at all.

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