Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Racing Presidents, the Future of No-Limit Hold’em, and the Significance of Context

Over the weekend I was able to take a quick trip with Vera up to Washington, DC to enjoy a couple of days’ worth of leisure.

We’d been a few times before in the past, and thus had already done much of the usual sightseeing stuff. This time we mostly just enjoyed some good eats in various restaurants, checked in on a museum, saw the Washington Monument being repaired, and did a lot of walking around. We made it to a Washington Nationals game, too, and had a laugh watching the Racing Presidents run around the field between innings.

The huge-headed mascots include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt. Of those I know Lincoln played a little poker. Taft isn’t known so much for his poker-playing, I don’t think, although he was a member of the Queen City Club in Cincinnati that had some card rooms. TR, though, was the big poker player of the bunch, and as it happened Roosevelt won the race on Saturday afternoon.

I was searching around online a little this morning and found a piece about the Racing Presidents visiting Mount Rushmore a few months back. While there, it looks like Teddy took a trip over to the famous Old Style Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, the site of the famous poker game in which Wild Bill Hickok met his demise. In fact, old “Square Deal” Teddy took the opportunity to sit in on a poker game while there (pic above via the Black Hills Travel Blog).

Got a chance to visit a number of cool bookstores while in DC as well. At one of them I picked up several poker-related titles on the cheap, some of which I’ll be sending out as prizes in the Hard-Boiled Poker Home Games. One of the books I picked up was Mason Malmuth’s Poker Essays.

First appearing in 2000 and including a lot of previously published items (among them several revised Card Player columns), it is the first of three volumes’ worth of similar essays published by Malmuth. Like a lot of titles published back then, the book is probably more interesting in the way it provides evidence of an earlier, pre-boom era of poker than for specific strategy advice. Also included are several pieces offering opinions about the staging of tournaments and talk about structures, as well as some thoughts on how card rooms were being run at the time, thus providing more interesting reading as reflections on the Las Vegas and California poker scenes circa 1990s.

This is the book that also contains a couple of Malmuth’s most quoted lines about the future of no-limit hold’em and tournaments. You might have run into these statements before somewhere, which in retrospect obviously read a little differently than they might have back when they were made.

In a chapter called “The Future of Poker,” Malmuth discusses 11 different variants then being spread in card rooms, offering his thoughts about the current and future popularity of each. He’s high on fixed-limit hold’em and seven-card stud (at the time the most popular variants in most rooms), and down on both pot-limit Omaha and fixed-limit Omaha (the latter having been spread during the late ’80s and ’90s, but hardly at all since). He thinks razz and Omaha/8 will survive, while draw poker probably won’t.

Of course, it’s his assessment of no-limit hold’em -- the first game on his list -- that grabs the attention the most while reading today. “The problem with no-limit hold’em,” writes Malmuth, “is that the expert player has too great an edge over weak players and will virtually never lose to these people.” He adds that “since bad players almost never win, they either go broke, find another game, or quit playing poker altogether.”

Those thoughts then inform what seems an inevitable conclusion for Malmuth.

“Unfortunately, there is not much future in no-limit hold’em.”

There’s another essay titled “Are Poker Tournaments Dying?” that offers a similarly bleak forecast. “I suspect that as years go by, there will be fewer major tournaments in Nevada casinos,” speculates Malmuth, although he does think things might play out differently in California. He also recognizes that there are “a few events, like ‘The World Series of Poker,’ [that] are spectacular successes and probably will continue to be so.”

“But as far as Nevada is concerned,” he says, “the great poker tournament boom is, in my opinion, past its peak.”

It isn’t fair, of course, to go back and isolate Malmuth’s proclamations about no-limit hold’em and tournaments almost a decade-and-a-half later like this, especially when considering that both were made well before online poker had surfaced much at all, never mind the subsequent and sudden “boom” fueled by televised that began around 2003 and which very few saw coming -- a development that directly spurred tremendous interest in both NLHE and tournaments.

Found a 2+2 thread from 2008 in which someone brought up the NLHE prediction and Malmuth responded, pointing out that “It did die as a side game. There were virtually no no-limit poker games for many years. It came back due to the interest in the TV shows and the fact that a cap was put on almost all games, something which was not done before.”

In other words, context matters. Thus when you alter the context -- say by reading predictions made long ago, or having former U.S. presidents absurdly dash around a baseball field to the delight of cheering fans -- a few grins (including unintended ones) are sometimes gonna result.

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