Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Other Opening Day: Global Poker League Starts Next Week

Looking at this schedule for the first season of the Global Poker League, just announced today. Matches involving the 12 teams start on April 5th and continue all of the way through to November 22nd when the finals are scheduled.

That means baseball gets going on Sunday, but on Tuesday there will be this other opening day that I might have to check out as well.

It appears as though there is a 14-week “regular season” schedule broken into two parts (the first lasting eight weeks, the latter one six), with a series of six “Summer Heats” coming in between that will coincide with the World Series of Poker playing out in Las Vegas (from early June to mid-July).

Each week of the regular season starts with some 6-max matches involving representatives from each of the six teams in each division (Eurasia and Americas), then has teams squaring off against one another over subsequent days.

I’m still in the dark regarding where and when all of this happens. If I’m following the press release correctly, these weekly matches (both the 6-max ones and the team-vs.-team ones) will all be online, “livestreamed and following an esports broadcast format.” Then the “Summer Heats” will be in person (I think), “filmed live on location in GPL’s Las Vegas Studio.” (Is that where the cube and playing while standing up comes in?) Then the final will apparently happen at the SSE Arena, Wembley (a place that seats 12,500).

It all remains pretty abstract, although my sports nerd side enjoys looking at schedules and imagining standings and statistics and associated whatnot. I think there will be a lot of interest in these first streams next week, at least among the poker community during a bit of a dry spell, tourney-wise. I wonder if that’ll drop off afterwards, or if there will be any appeal at all to fans of other esports who might gravitate over.

I think actually the whole project in a way is attempting to create a different, somewhat abstract version of the game -- one in which certain core elements (namely the investment of money and the individual participation) are being jettisoned in favor of highlighting other facets, including (I’m guessing) in-game strategy, personalities, and city identities.

We could step back, of course, and think about how tournament poker is itself a kind of abstraction of cash game poker, although not a hugely dramatic one. Much we take for granted about how tournaments work were once wholly new and strange -- not that long ago, in fact.

Such a long season -- I guess by the end it won’t seem so strange anymore, at least among those who stick around to follow it.

Image: Global Poker League.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Eight-Figure Cashers Meet Heads-Up in WSOP-C Finale

I was up late last night doing some work and so noticed some of the tweets going by signaling that Jamie Gold and Antonio Esfandiari were among those who were at the final table of the World Series of Poker Circuit Main Event at the Bicycle Casino. Also making the final nine in that $1,675 buy-in event (with re-entries) were Ray Henson, Bryn Kenney, and Ludovic Geilich.

As the night wore on the messages continued to pop up as Gold and Esfandiari eventually made it to heads-up. It was then I clicked over to the live stream provided by the Live at the Bike folks and watch the last several hands play out, with Esfandiari eventually winning to take the ring.

With 756 entries, the first prize for Esfandiari was $226,785. Many commenting over Twitter noted how the pair showing up at this WSOP-C Main final table was a bit of a throwback. “It was like 2006 all over again!” tweeted Jennifer Tilly, a thought occurring to many others, I imagine.

That of course was the year of Jamie Gold’s victory in the WSOP Main Event, marking his introduction to most of us via the subsequent ESPN coverage. By then we also were well familiar with Esfandiari thanks to his 2004 win in the World Poker Tour L.A. Poker Classic, also shown repeatedly on our teevees.

Both players have made California home, explaining their having turned up for the event at the Bicycle. Both have also at one time in their careers sat atop the Hendon Mob’s “All-Time Money List” ranking players’ tournament winnings, a list currently headed by Daniel Negreanu.

There was another connection between the two I couldn’t help but think about while watching them square off last night. This had to be the first time two players with eight-figure cashes on their tournament résumés ever met heads-up in a tournament.

By winning the first Big One for One Drop at the 2012 WSOP, Esfandiari cashed for $18,346,673, while Gold won a $12,000,000 first prize for taking down the largest-ever WSOP Main Event in 2006. (As we know, neither player actually won those full amounts, with Esfandiari reportedly only having around 15% of himself and Gold famously giving up half of his prize in the subsequent lawsuit.)

Only two other players have eight-figure tournament scores -- Daniel Colman (awarded $15,306,668 after winning the 2014 installment of the Big One for One Drop) and Martin Jacobson (who won $10,000,000 for his victory in the 2014 WSOP Main Event. Safe to make the assumption, then, than none of these guys have played heads-up before. (Sam Trickett, who finished runner-up to Esfandiari in that Big One for One Drop, became an eight-figure cashers upon the conclusion of that event, as his prize was $10,112,001.)

One other bit of trivia from last night’s WSOP-C results -- Gold’s second-place cash for $139,820 was the second-highest of his career.

Image: “List of largest poker tournaments in history (by prize pool),” Wikipedia (retrieved 3/30/16).

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

To Call It “Three-Handed” Assumes They’re All Playing the Same Game

I talk politics on this blog occasionally, though like every other non-poker topic I’ve taken up in nearly a decade’s worth of posts I’ll do so only in relation to some poker-related idea. That’s the only restriction I’ve ever followed here on HBP -- to make at least some reference to poker in every single post, even if the link might be as thin as a river bet with fourth pair.

The Republican primaries have been kind of jawdropping in a number of ways, thanks largely of course to the destructive rambling about of bellwether Donald Trump. I wrote a post here almost exactly two months ago about “Trump and the Poker Analogy,” making the point there that in truth all politicians -- especially those running for office -- are always like poker players, or at least always capable of being viewed in such a way.

In the weeks since many have continued to try to piece together a coherent strategy out of the various, sometimes way-off-the-beaten path headlines emanating from the Trump campaign. The very process of trying to look at a campaign as being a “game” played “like poker” imposes a kind of logic upon it, even when one doesn’t exist. We do the same thing at the tables when confronted by strange-seeming plays from an opponent. (If this guy knows what the hell he’s doing, we think, what is that, exactly?)

Trump has many fervent supporters, it’s obvious. It’s also obvious that when asked to address absolutely any issue in any detail beyond introductory rallying-cries he is wincingly unable to demonstrate his understanding or in many cases even to make sense in his responses. But he’s got a seat at the table, and to the befuddlement of others he’s somehow amassed a big, threatening stack. Every hand is now necessarily being played -- by both parties’ remaining candidates -- with a wary eye cast in his direction.

Had the teevee on tonight and that “town hall” on CNN playing featuring the three remaining GOP candidates -- Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich -- each separately appearing to take questions. Most interestingly, I thought, was how each of them in turn made clear he would no longer be willing to support the party’s eventual nominee. This represented a change for all three of them, as they’d each previously said they would support whomever the Republicans eventually chose.

What would be the poker analogy for this?

Would it be like a deal negotiation at three-handed suddenly turning very sour, with all three coming away offended at the terms they had been presented and each of them now returning to the table full of spite versus the other two?

Or is it more like one having tried to shoot an angle, another calling the floor, and a third intervening during the subsequent discussion in a way that causes still more consternation, engendering a lingering enmity between all three once play finally resumes?

Then again, maybe it’s wrong to try to impose the clarity-lending analogy upon the proceedings at all, given that doing so incorrectly makes it seem as though the “players” aren’t in fact each playing wholly separate “games” for which tonight’s “town hall” format that segregating them from each other seemed suitable.

Don’t know what to conclude, really. Other than to think when players start turning on each other -- whatever they are playing -- that’s usually a sign the game is probably about to break up.

Image: “Republican Primary Final Three 2016 - Caricatures,” DonkeyHotey. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Feeling Competitive, Not Competing

Enjoying watching UNC play well and advance through the NCAA tournament. Partly because of general uncertainty and partly as an emotional hedge, I didn’t pick the Heels to go this far in my pool. (In fact, I can’t remember the last time I picked them to win it all.) But I am having fun watching them succeed nonetheless.

As happened to many, my bracket went up in flames way back in the round of 64 when my pick to win the sucker -- Michigan State -- dropped their first game against Middle Tennessee State. Meanwhile on the other side of the bracket I managed to pick two Final Four teams correctly (Villanova and Oklahoma), and thus by necessity have wallowed just a bit in “what if” scenarios as a result.

The pool I’m in has about 60 entries, and of that bunch just two folks picked three of four region winners correctly. Meanwhile getting two of them was above average, as only a little over a third of the entries got that many. In other words, over half got none or one.

Of course, most of us who got two also had Michigan State getting through the Midwest (only one picked Syracuse to do so), and a lot of folks had Kansas topping the East and not UNC (I had Xavier). In truth I needn’t bother too much with wondering “what if” MSU hadn’t faltered as they did, as I would’ve probably still been stuck in the middle of the pack even if they had won a few games.

Having hit with ’Nova and the Sooners is a bit of a tease, though. Like hitting your flush on the river only after the board paired on the turn to give your opponent a full house.

It’s a little like a game in which your team gets down big early, remains behind by 15 with eight minutes to go, then stages a pseudo-comeback to get within a couple of possessions before time runs out. (In contrast to what Syracuse pulled off yesterday when they managed to wipe out a 15-point deficit in less than five minutes against Virginia to grab the lead for the endgame.)

My (virtual) first-round knockout from the pool this year makes me long for the pool I used to enter back in the day, the one for which you picked round-by-round and thus were never out of it -- at least not until the end of the second weekend. (I discuss the scoring and rules for that pool in this post from a few years back.)

Then again, looking at the four remaining teams (UNC, Syracuse, Villanova, and Oklahoma, it’d be hard to say who I’d pick on Saturday and then in the final. One less thing to think about this week!

Photo: “NCAA Basketball,” Phil Roeder. CC BY 2.0.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Living Through Another Cuba

Lot of focus on Cuba this week, what with President Barack Obama’s visit, the exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, the Rolling Stones concert tonight, and other associated activities. While certainly historic, it’s hard to gauge in the moment whether these events are positive or not both for the Cuban people and for the United States’ relationship with the country going forward.

There’s much ambiguity on both sides here -- like watching a poker game play out without knowing either player’s hole cards nor getting to see any showdowns.

All of it is nonetheless very intriguing to follow, especially for someone who is already often reading and thinking about U.S. politics of the 1960s and so spends perhaps more time than most learning about the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s takeover, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the continued complicated responses by the U.S. to Cuba over subsequent years and decades.

The ouster of Fulgencio Batista’s regime -- officially occurring on January 1, 1959 -- also meant the end of the “Havana high life” culture marked by casinos, gambling, numerous nightclubs, and the significant influence of organized crime. It’s a scene memorably depicted in Sydney Pollack’s 1990 film Havana whose protagonist is an American poker player played by Robert Redford (which I wrote about here before).

Perhaps influenced by these recent posts about “poker’s precursors,” I found myself wondering a little bit today about the history of poker in Cuba. I’ve read that following Castro’s takeover playing cards were banned altogether by the communist regime, which would considerably mute the development of poker and other card games post-1959 (even if games were no doubt still played). But looking back to the 1950s and before, I wondered a bit about how poker was played on the islands, including what variants were popular.

The games appearing in Havana resemble games played in the U.S. during that time (e.g., we see Redford’s character playing five-card draw in the film). One would assume both draw and stud were the favored games during the first half of the century and before, with other games like the Spanish game of mus -- a game that turns up in several Central American countries -- undoubtedly also making an appearance during Cuba’s earlier history.

There’s another popular Cuban game called “cubilete” that is actually a dice-based game though involves poker-related elements. The dice are in fact marked “ace,” “king,” “queen,” “jack,” “gallegos,” and “negros” -- that’s the order they are ranked (i.e., A-K-Q-J-G-N). Players take turns rolling and trying to make high hands. I believe aces are wild, but I’m not up on other details of scoring and game play. (Some irresponsible, unresearched speculation perhaps suggests “cubilete” represented a way to play poker without cards.)

In any event, I will continue to follow this seemingly new chapter in Cuba’s story and U.S. relations with its neighbor to the south.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is often discussed as having been a kind of heads-up poker game between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev -- with the highest-stakes imaginable. I suppose the events of this past week might also be regarded as small-pot hands being played by a couple of wary opponents, with neither side appearing to go for much value just yet.

(That post title, of course, comes from the similarly-titled XTC tune, written at a time much closer to the crisis to which alludes -- in 1980 amid the ongoing Cold War -- than to today.)

Photo: “Sunset over Hotel Nacional, 2014,” LukaszKatlewa. CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Hedging

Might still have another post or two left to file under the “poker’s precursors” heading -- at the very least I’m going to do an epilogue recapping those games and adding a few other thoughts regarding them. Today, though, I’ll just pass along this short poker-related item from National Public Radio, a segment appearing earlier today called “Hedging Their Bets: How The Pros Diversity Their Poker Portfolios.”

Clicking the above link gets you to the short audio clip as well as a transcript of the report. Basically it’s just sharing to a non-poker audience the phenomenon of players buying pieces of each other in tournaments, presenting it as an alternative way to “invest” besides simply paying one’s own entry fees and trying to eek out a profit.

Poker pro Derek Wolters is featured as the investor, describing in particular his having played and busted the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event while also buying pieces of 16 other players in the tournament. One of those Wolters bought pieces of turned out to be Jake Balsiger who went onto finish third for a nearly $3.8 million prize -- good for almost $600,000 for Wolters.

“Are you a better investor or a poker player?” asks reporter Keith Romer of Wolters near the end, who replies he thinks he’s better at investing while adding “there’s not that many people who do as much investing as me.”

The piece does a nice job presenting the phenomenon of buying action, with the analogy of this being a way to “diversify” a “poker portfolio” helping get the idea across. The piece might give the impression that tournament players selling/buying action is somewhat new, when obviously it isn’t.

It also perhaps suggests misleadingly that buying pieces of others is a better investment strategy than playing oneself, with the bonanza Wolters happened to hit with Balsiger making it seem he exerted some kind of skill or strategy with his investments that was better constructed than the strategy he employs at the poker tables. That could well be true, but in just over three minutes there wasn’t a lot of space to give his two methods of investing a thoughtful comparison.

Finally, I can’t help but think how at least a few non-poker playing listeners might wonder a little about the ethics of players buying and selling each other’s action while also competing against each other in the same event. It’s an issue -- usually a non-issue -- with which those of us close to that world are very familiar, but from the outside it has to seem a little strange. That is, buying percentages of others whose success or failure is not unrelated to your own, not to mention the more direct possibility of collusion that always exists as a possibility when players who’ve bought pieces of each other happen to meet at the same table.

Describing the practice as “hedging” fits in one sense -- by buying up pieces of others, players do give themselves extra chances to win should they themselves lose. But are they “limiting their exposure” (as hedging is normally described) or increasing it? Just as poker is a more complicated game than it might appear from the outside, so, too, is buying action a more complicated investment strategy than the piece perhaps lets on.

I liked the piece, but then again I’m not sure. I want to hedge.

Image: $100 bills in $10000 straps, stacked in a pyramid, public domain.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Persian Game of “As-Nas”

With the Middle Eastern game of as-nas we move outside of Europe as well as into that realm of card games about which there has been a lot of contention regarding their actual status as “precursors” to poker.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into the debate here other than to note that references to as-nas don’t really turn up until the late 19th century -- that is, after poker had already established itself in North America in the early 1800s -- which obviously challenges the idea that poker borrowed from it.

Some as-nas decks date from around 1800 (just a little before poker), and a couple of writers of books about card games boldly declared it to be an early version of poker. But later on it was observed that “as” -- referring to the ace -- isn’t really a Persian word at all but a borrowing of the French word for ace, kind of strengthening the suggestion that as-nas decended from the European “vying” games we’ve been discussing.

Like I say, though, let me just set all that aside and explain quickly how to play as-nas. We call it a “Persian” card game because it wasn’t until the 1930s that the West started referring to the country of its origin as Iran (even if those living there referred to it as such well before), and the game was played well before that.

The game uses a 20-card deck for up to four players or a 25-card deck if five are playing. Players are each dealt five cards (clockwise), then a betting round follows with the rules for betting very much resembling that of poker, including allowing for a blind bet (like a “straddle”) before the cards are dealt. After the betting comes the showdown (for players still in the hand), and the highest-ranking hand wins. (That is, there’s no draw or second betting round.)

The cards used in as-nas are analogous to the A-K-Q-J-10 in poker, although they’re designated a little differently. The “as” (ace) often features a lion; the “shah” (king) has a king-like figure on a throne or horse; the “bibi” (lady) depicts a mother and child; the “serbaz” (soldier) is a soldier-figure; and the “couli” (an unnumbered card considered the lowest) is a dancing figure.

There are four suits (spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs), although suits don’t figure in the hand rankings. If five players are playing, five more cards of the same rankings -- in a fifth suit (I’m not sure what) -- are employed.

I’m seeing some differences in how hand rankings are described, although most seem to say flushes and straights don’t count, and the only hands that matter are (highest-to-lowest) four of a kind, a full house, three of a kind, two pair, one pair, and high-card, with “kickers” counting to help break ties. Obviously players can bluff, with a bluff being called a “tûp.”

This is more or less “Old Poker,” an early version of poker with a 20-card deck that also had only a single round of betting and no draw, although examples of the latter game started incorporating the larger deck as well as flushes and straights. The parallels make it easy enough to see why some want to hold up as-nas as the most direct precursor to poker, as certainly its resemblances are more extensive than is the case with any of the other European games.

But as has also been argued, that may not be such a coincidence given that the Persian game may well have come a little after poker and not before.

Image: An as-nas deck (as, shah, bibi, serbaz, couli) from the Online Collection of the Brooklyn Museum, no restrictions.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Poorly Played On All Streets

I have at least one more “poker’s precursors” post I want to do -- perhaps a couple, actually -- but am taking a break again here today for a quick reflection on the amazing end of that Northern Iowa-Texas A&M game Sunday night.

Once upon a time -- especially around these parts -- the classic “never give up” example from college basketball was the 1974 Duke-UNC game in which the Heels came back from eight points down with 17 seconds to go, needing a long buzzer beater from Walter Davis (banked in!) to tie before going on to win in overtime.

“Eight points in 17 seconds” became kind of a mantra we’d always hear time and again at the end of ACC games thereafter, a shorthand reminder to viewers not to shut off the television early. There have been more remarkable comebacks over the last four decades, but that one continued to hold on as a commonly-evoked referent (with the lack of a three-point shot then making it even more noteworthy).

But what happened Sunday night was just mind-boggling. I didn’t shut the TV off, but I did walk away from it when NIU had a double-digit lead with about five minutes left. Spent the next half-hour or so up at the barn occupied with feeding some horses and other things, then walked back in the house to discover the game had reached double OT.

That’s when I picked up on the chatter about the Aggies’ big comeback. Was I hearing it correctly? Were they really saying they’d been 12 points down with less than a minute left and somehow had tied the game? How in the what in the who?

I immediately scrolled back on my teevee to watch that last minute play out again (here’s a condensed clip of what I saw). A follow-up basket with 34 seconds left cut the lead to 10, at which point Northern Iowa took their last timeout -- a seemingly innocuous decision that proved meaningful a little later once things began unraveling.

NIU would swiftly turn the ball over on the next three possessions, with Texas A&M converting each time right away, including knocking down a three. That suddenly cut it to 69-66 with 20 seconds left.

Then Northern Iowa scored on a breakaway dunk to make it 71-66 with 17 seconds left, and A&M responded immediately with a layup, with NIU getting called for a foul (perhaps questionably) on the shot. The free throw was converted, and the lead was just two with 12 seconds to go. Then NIU turned the ball over a fourth time, leading to the tying basket.

It happened so quickly, it wasn’t until later I realized the comeback had been achieved without A&M having to foul intentionally a single time. That the Aggies went on to win in double OT was predictable (and anticlimactic) -- I’m just surprised NIU managed to hold it together to compete during that first overtime period.

When I chatted with my buddy Dr. Pauly about the game afterwards, he provided what I thought was a good poker analogy for what had happened.

“Poorly played on all streets,” he said.

I suppose it was a bit like picking up a pair of aces, having been up by a dozen with less than a minute to go. Passive play then let the Aggies get to the flop cheaply, and missteps thereafter worrisomely bloated the pot while allowing Texas A&M to fill a wildly unlikely backdoor draw, paid off for the near maximum by NIU. I say “near maximum” because NIU didn’t bust, but essentially allowed Texas A&M a full double-up to survive before they rose up and finished off the Panthers.

“Twelve points in 44 seconds” will be the new rallying cry for those seeking the basketball equivalent of one-outers going forward, I guess.

(I’m just realizing -- the title of this post essentially describes my busted bracket, too. I played the preflop okay, I suppose, doing fair on Thursday, but mangled the hand terribly thereafter.)

Photo: “Aggie Hoop” (adapted), Stuart Seeger. CC BY 2.0.

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Monday, March 21, 2016

The French Game of “Poque”

Of all the European card games that preceded poker, the French game of poque is probably the closest relative. The game initially surfaces during the 16th century, and for a few reasons is usually held up as the immediate precursor to poker.

For one, poque was actually brought to America by French settlers, including in areas of the Louisiana Territory where poker would first emerge in the early 1800s. Like the German game of poch, the name also resembles the name for poker, and many have speculated an Englished pronunciation of the word incorrectly emphasizing the second syllable provided a basis for the name.

Poque itself has a few precursors, among them glic (dating from the 15th century), brélan (first turning up around the 17th century), and bouillotte (from the 18th century). While glic is a lot more like the German game of poch and other similar games -- that was the three-phase game with the round board and nine cups -- both brélan and bouillotte are simpler, mainly just versions of the second “vying” phase of those other games.

Variations of brélan and bouillotte exist, including being played with differently-sized decks (increased sometimes to accommodate more players). For example, a game of bouillotte might have been played by four players with a 20-card deck, using just the aces, kings, queens, nines, and eights, and if there were a fifth player the jacks would be included, too, to make a 24-card deck. (Or if just three were playing, queens would be tossed and they’d use just 16 cards.) Chips (or some equivalent) were used as well for betting purposes.

Before the game began players drew cards to decide where to sit. I’ve seen some references to the game being played clockwise and others counter-clockwise -- I think the latter more likely.

Prior to the deal players would ante, then the player to the right of the dealer would have the option to raise the stakes by putting in an additional bet called a “carre” -- kind of a like a straddle, as no one has any cards yet. If that player does make a bet, the next player can fold, call, or raise and so on, meaning players can drop out of hands even before cards are dealt, if they wish.

Next comes the deal -- three cards to each player, plus one more card set face up in the middle. This last card, called the “retourné” essentially functions like a “community card” in that each player is making a four-card hand that includes the face-up card. Another round of betting follows that again somewhat resembles the betting in poker (there are some differences, but I’m glossing over them here). Once the betting is completed, players left in the hand show their cards.

When it comes to hand rankings in bouillotte, there are basically just three hand types:

  • brélan carré (highest) = four of a kind (including the retourné, of course)
  • brélan = three of a kind, all in the player’s hand (i.e., not using the retourné)
  • brélan favori = three of a kind, two in the player’s hand plus the retourné
  • After that, whoever has the most points in their hand wins, with aces worth 11 points, court cards 10, and nines and eights their numerical value. In the case of ties, suits come into play, with the suit of the retourné functioning like a trump suit and the player with the highest card in that suit winning.

    That’s the game that would eventually become poque, as I understand it, although poque also existed as that three-phase game, too, apparently. Eventually only the middle “vying” game would be played, though, and bouillotte started getting called poque thanks to players using the verb “poque” to describe their betting action (“Je poque” = “I bet”).

    In any case, this is the game that certainly most resembles the earliest “Old Poker” games that involved smaller deck, a single deal and round of betting, and no draw (yet).

    Image: “Peasants Playing Cards” (1700s), Norbert van Bloemen, public domain

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    Friday, March 18, 2016

    63 Winners, 63 Losers

    Taking another short break again today from my survey of poker “precursors” -- that is, card games (mostly European) that preceded poker’s initial appearance in the early 19th century. Have so far discussed mus (Spain), poch (Germany), primiera (Italy), and brag (England), and have at least a couple of more I’d like to add to the list next week.

    Today I’m distracted, though -- like most of my readers, I imagine -- by the start of the NCAA tournament and another entry into a pool. Writing here at the start of the second half of the round of 64, I survived yesterday in decent shape and so am still enthused about the prospects of maybe winning the sucker (as I once luckboxed my way into doing a few years ago). In other words, I haven’t burned my bracket just yet.

    Incidentally, inspired by picking all of the games and the sort of faux “favorite/upset” dichotomy created by NCAA seeds, I wrote a strategy article yesterday for PokerNews titled “Pumping Up the Variance Against Better-Skilled Opponents,” if you’re curious. The idea I explored there had to do with the way lesser-skilled players in poker can sometimes reduce an opponent’s edge by making larger bets and raises and generally trying to play “big pot” poker and increase the luck factor. You know -- bigger preflop raises, more all-ins, and so on to reduce the decisions after the flop. I also mentioned how faster-structured tournaments function similarly, reducing the number of hands per level and making the stacks more shallow more quickly.

    The fact that the NCAA changed the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds this year has encouraged many to observe that the underdogs (theoretically) should have less of a chance of topping the favorites because there are now more possessions per game (about five more per team). I suggest that is analogous to playing more hands and thus giving better-skilled performers more chances to benefit from their edge.

    Like I say, you can check out the article to see how I explain all of that and decide whether or not there’s something to the observation. Meanwhile, let me share a couple of other thoughts that occurred to me as I filled out this year’s bracket.

    I found myself looking very closely this year at how the teams who made the tournament have performed in the NCAA recently, looking specifically over the last five years. Just felt like I’d been burned a few times picking some team to make the Elite Eight and then realizing as they were getting smoked in the first round they’d never gotten out of the first weekend before.

    Interestingly, out of all 68 teams there are only nine who have played in the NCAA each of the last five years -- Michigan State, Gonzaga, UNC, Wisconsin, Duke, Cincinnati, VCU, Kansas, and Villanova. The average for all the teams was only a bit more than two NCAA appearances out of the last five years.

    Ultimately I just used that as one factor that in a few cases swayed me one way or the other when making a selection. That said, I did pick a team to make the final four who has lost in the first round the last three years’ running, and didn’t even make the tournament the two years before that (Oklahoma).

    To be honest, even after putting in the effort to figure out every team’s recent history, I couldn’t make myself actually adhere to those findings in any sort of systematic way. As I think pretty much all poker players know, it’s hard to let go of “feel” and give yourself completely over to what math and logic are telling you is the right play to make. That’s not to say recent NCAA history is going to be an infallible predictor of success, but even if it were close to being so, I think it would be hard for me to subtract my own “gut” entirely from the equation.

    One other kind of weird thing about my bracket. Partly motivated by the impression that there are a number of teams this year that can win it all -- perhaps more than most years -- I ended up going against the grain in another big way by not having any No. 1 seeds in my final four, and four No. 2 seeds. I didn’t plan for that, but when that’s how it ended up I decided it was weird enough to try, if only as an experiment. Haven’t looked, but I’d be surprised if there were any other final fours in the pool comprised of Villanova, Oklahoma, Xavier, and Michigan State.

    All four of those teams play today, so if one or two fall I will be doing some burning.

    (EDIT [added 5 p.m. ET]: Oh well, it was a fun few hours, anyway -- my chosen winner, Michigan State, dropped their first-round game this afternoon, the first time in a quarter-century of filling out these pools my winner was out so soon.)

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    Thursday, March 17, 2016

    The English game of “Brag”

    Brag dates from 16th century England and is another one of these “vying” games that often are described as forerunners to poker. In fact the name of the game -- “brag” -- can literally mean to “vie” (or to compete) in some contexts. It also can mean “bluff,” and bluffing is indeed part of the game.

    The game is still fairly popular today, although it has undergone a lot of changes. Originally a three-card game (sometimes fittingly called “three-card brag”), there are versions with four, five, six, seven, nine, and even 13 cards. Brag was big enough for Edmond Hoyle to write about it in the mid-18th century, although by then he was describing a game that was a bit different from the earlier version I’m summarizing here.

    Three-card brag is played with a 52-card deck, with aces high. Before the deal there can be an ante (if desired). Three cards are then dealt to each player, with the action going clockwise. I’m seeing references to the deck being shuffled before the first hand, but then not shuffled thereafter with cards just collected and put on the bottom, thus making it possible to keep track of what cards are more likely to be dealt on subsequent hands.

    A betting round follows the deal, and betting in brag can be a little complicated to explain. It starts out like poker, with the first player able to fold or bet. Usually there’s either a fixed amount to bet or a minimum and maximum (like “spread limit”). Once someone bets, the next player can fold, bet the same amount, or raise to a higher amount (again, the maximum raise amount has been agreed to beforehand).

    All of this sounds like poker so far. But say one player bets and two others call -- things don’t end there. The action goes back to the initial bettor who now has to bet again -- at least as much as the original bet -- or fold. And others have to call (or raise, if they like) to stay in the hand.

    This process continues until finally just two players remain, at which point the betting rules change a little. Player A has to bet again (or fold and lose), again at least as much as the previous bet (or can bet more). Player B can fold and lose, bet the same amount (or call) and force the action back on Player A (who has to bet again), or raise by betting exactly twice the bet. That third action -- which actually ends the betting -- is confusingly called “seeing,” but there’s a good reason for it.

    If Player B decides to “see” by making that bet that is twice what Player A bet, Player A doesn’t have to call that bet, but does have to show his or her hand first. If Player B has a better hand, that player shows it and wins the pot. If Player B has a worse hand, or one that is equal to Player A’s, Player B loses and doesn’t have to show.

    So basically betting continues until either everyone has folded except one player (who wins without a showdown), or until there are two players left and one of them bets double the other’s bet to “see” the other’s hand and close the betting. Got it?

    So what makes the better hand? The rankings are as follows:

  • Prial (meaning “pair royal”), or three of a kind
  • Running flush, or three consecutive cards of the same suit (a three-card straight flush)
  • Run, or three consecutive cards not of the same suit (a straight)
  • Flush, or three suited cards
  • Pair, two cards of same rank (kickers count)
  • High card
  • The betting is the most complicated part of the game to learn, although even that isn’t too hard to get the hang of, I’d say. The rest of it is fairly simple and you can see how the hand rankings resemble what will come in poker. Note how players can bluff if they like, although that becomes harder to do when there are just two players left (I’d imagine), as folding becomes less likely.

    Note, by the way, how a “run” (or straight) beats a flush.

    There’s a variation in which players can choose to play “blind” and not look at their cards -- bluffing obviously is the name of the game, there. The four- and five-card versions let players pick the best three cards to play, thus increasing the chances of making better hands. Meanwhile the ones with more cards involve players playing multiple three-card hands.

    Brag certainly resembles the earliest form of poker, sometimes called “Old Poker,” which involved just a single deal and one round of betting (and no draw). I think of all the precursor games we’ve looked at so far, brag would be the easiest one to play in a modern-day tournament (following on that idea mentioned last week).

    Image: Detail from painting of Elizabeth Card Players, illustrated in “What Life Was Like in the Realm of Elizabeth: England AD 1533-1603,” Willem van Herp, public domain.

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    Wednesday, March 16, 2016

    The Italian Game of “Primiera”

    Gonna move on today to try to provide at least a summary description of another card game often listed among poker’s “precursors,” this time looking at the Italian game of primiera that made its first appearance in the early 16th century or about two hundred years before poker’s debut.

    There are a ton of alternate names for primiera -- prime, primo visto, primus, primavista -- as well as other very similar games like scopa and other regional variants. In fact some argue its birthplace is actually Spain (where it’s called primera) and not Italy. And speaking of Shakespeare (about whom I was writing yesterday), the game or something similar to it pops up on more than one occasion in the plays (where it’s called primero).

    Different versions of the game are still played today in several European countries, although none of these modern variants are exactly like the original game. In fact, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how the game was first played as there exist a number of descriptions of 16th-century primiera but no unambiguous rules for it. Several folks have tried to “reconstruct” the game from various sources, and this summary is based mostly on one of those attempts.

    Primiera is another “vying” game where players build hands and compare them, with betting and bluffing also part of game play. It’s played with a 40-card deck, tossing out the eights, nines, and tens. The remaining cards are assigned point values as follows:

  • seven = 21 points
  • six = 18 points
  • ace = 16 points
  • five = 15 points
  • four = 14 points
  • three = 13 points
  • two = 12 points
  • jack, queen, king = 10 points each
  • Play begins with each player being dealt two cards face down, followed by a betting round that kind of resembles how betting works in poker (i.e., you can “pass” or check, bet, call, raise, or fold just like in poker). But there’s more to it than that.

    Besides betting, players are also getting to declare on this round which of five different hand types is going to be the goal of that particular hand. It sounds a little like playing five games in one, and here, halfway through the deal of what will ultimately be a four-card hand, the first bettor gets to choose (initially, anyway) which of the five is going to be played.

    Here are the five hand types, with each valued higher than the last:

  • numerus -- a hand with two or three cards of the same suit (and you add up the point values of the 2-3 cards)
  • primero -- a hand with one card from each of the four suits, like a Badugi (again, you add up point values of all four cards)
  • supremus -- a hand with the six, seven, and ace of a single suit (which add up to 55)
  • fluxus -- a hand with four of the same suit, like a flush (again, adding up the points)
  • chorus -- four of a kind (again, adding up the points)
  • When that first player bets, then, after having been dealt just two of the four cards, the player puts some chips or money out, declares a hand type, and also bids a certain point total. For example, the first player bets some amount and says “Numerus 40,” meaning the “game” is numerus and making it necessary for that player to make at least 40 points by the showdown to win.

    As noted, subsequent players can fold or call or raise, but if they want to stay in the hand they either have to bid a higher point total in the same hand type/game, or declare a “higher” hand type/game. Say the first guy bets and says “Numerus 40.” The next player can call (or raise), but has to say “Numerus 41” (at least) or declare, say, “Primero 45” or whatever.

    It’s kind of complicated to explain -- you’re basically having two different kinds of “betting” going on at once here, what with the actual betting and the declaring/bidding. Muddling things further, players can “pass” and discard/draw one or two cards, and they can fold and get back half of whatever they’ve already bet. Also, a bet goes uncalled around the table, the last player left to act must call the bet and stay in the hand, no matter what kind of hand he or she has.

    For whoever is left in the hand comes a second deal -- the last two cards -- and another betting round, again picking up where the declarations of hand types/games was left off as well as the bidding. If the hand type is numerus or supremus, players have to draw/discard one or two cards. You can bluff in a way, too, by bidding a lower point value than you actually have, or by declaring a hand type that is lower than what you actually have (e.g., you declare supremus when you have a fluxus).

    Finally when all of the betting and bidding is done players show their hands. Whoever has the highest hand type wins, and if they have the same type they go to the point totals to determine who comes out on top. You can “foul” your hand (as in Chinese poker), for example, if you don’t have at least as many points as has been last bid. Or if you’re playing numerus (say) and when you draw/discard you end up with something better, like a fluxus.

    You can follow that link above for a more thorough explanation -- or rather, reconstruction -- of how 16th-century primiera was played. You see some of the elements of poker here, including a few of the same hand rankings and the procedures of betting and bluffing. Though again, as was the case with both mus and poch, it’s clear that primiera isn’t quite poker, even if it shares some of the same elements.

    Image: “Card Players” (1508-1510), Lucas van Leyden, public domain.

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    Tuesday, March 15, 2016

    Threats

    I’m interrupting my brief survey of card games considered to be poker’s “precursors” to share something else today. Back at it tomorrow.

    This past weekend, just by chance, I happened to reread Julius Caesar. Took Shakespeare courses in college and taught him here and there amid some lit surveys (usually just the sonnets), but it had been a while since I’d meaningfully spent time with the Bard.

    The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is coming up next month, and with that in mind I decided to download the Complete Works on my Kindle. Without much forethought at all I randomly decided to begin with Caesar. It’s the first step in a plan to read through all 37 plays over the course of the coming year, kind of a belated reprise of my earlier Shakespeare studies.

    I say I chose Caesar “randomly,” although it only took a scene or two for me to doubt whether or not there might have been some subconscious motive to the selection. To put it another way, that I might have been fated to make such a choice.

    Shakespeare is timeless, which is why four centuries later his plays and poems continue to resonate and provide consistent insight regarding the human condition. That said, the echoes with current events were so loud they threatened to overwhelm what Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, Antony, and others were saying.

    Julius Caesar tells the story of a political assassination, based on the actual slaying of Caesar in 44 B.C. that signaled the end of the Roman Republic and subsequent dawning of the Roman Empire first led by Augustus. The play follows a familiar narrative trajectory starting with the conspirators’ plotting Caesar’s murder, the killing itself (coming at the start of the third of five acts), then concluding with the seemingly inevitable battle between Caesar’s killers and those seeking revenge for his murder.

    Over the last couple of years I’ve spent probably more time than is healthy studying the Kennedy assassination, reading about and watching coverage of the event while constantly sorting through all of the many theories regarding what actually happened. I even read through the Warren Commission Report not long ago, or at least the summary prefacing the 26 volumes of so-called supporting documents. It began as an innocent digression from my “Nixon studies,” but the JFK rabbit hole can be a hard one to dig out of sometimes.

    One of the more complicated conspiracy theories entertained by some regarding Kennedy’s killing describes it as an “inside job” involving many individuals and agencies within his administration, a scenario somewhat resembling what happens in Caesar where those closest to the dictator decide it to be in the public’s interest that he be eliminated. “We shall be called purgers, not murderers,” goes the rationalizing line.

    Early on we hear Cassius lamenting how “this man is now become a god” despite being “of such a feeble temper” and unworthy of his power. Brutus agrees he’d “rather be a villager than to repute himself a son of Rome under these hard conditions.” Indeed, at the end of the play, after Brutus has died, Antony credits him somewhat as the only one of the conspirators who acted not out of envy (like Cassius) but out of “a general honest thought and common good to all.”

    Such is the perspective assigned to JFK’s killers, or so argue those favoring such a theory. There are several other moments, too, that evoke JFK’s assassination, or at least they do for those of us who find themselves occupied by some of its details.

    For example, during the celebration over the defeat of Pompey, Caesar’s repeatedly refuses to accept the crown of Rome from Antony, a scene that gets replicated in a superficial though uncanny way on the morning of November 22, 1963 at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast shortly after Kennedy delivered what would turn out to be his last speech. I refer to the moment when the Chamber’s president Raymond Buck gave JFK the gift of a cowboy hat for “some protection against the rain” and Kennedy’s refusal to wear it despite the crowd’s insistent urging.

    As I say above, though, the play’s parallels with the contemporary political situation and in particular the increasingly antagonistic presidential race were the most conspicuous for me on this reading. I’m thinking in particular about the current G.O.P. frontrunner and the increasing “alarum” being raised both by the party he represents and by the opposing one, too, over the prospects of his continuing to accumulate delegates and momentum and perhaps even the nomination.

    All campaigns consist largely of promises, with each promise falling somewhere on a spectrum between vague and specific, as well as between fantastical and realistic. Candidates gauge voters’ reactions in the form of polls and votes and nudge themselves accordingly up and down each axis to find what seems a favorable position from which to stump. This year, though, one candidate has instead consistently favored threats over promises -- some vague and fantastical, some specific and real -- which in turn has caused others to remark upon the threat he represents by doing so.

    Threats are a constant theme in Julius Caesar. The conspirators begin by describing to each other the threat posed by Caesar’s rule, from which come their own threat of violence against him. Caesar meanwhile expresses trepidation to Antony, recognizing Cassius as a threat primarily because “he thinks too much” and “such men are dangerous.” “Such men as he be never at heart’s ease whiles they behold a greater than themselves,” Caesar continues. “And therefore are they very dangerous.”

    A little after Casca is talking to Brutus about how fervently Caesar’s supporters are, noting how he seemingly can do no wrong in their eyes. Despite his refusing of the crown, they still showered love on him, Casca explains. “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less,” says Casca, causing today’s reader to think of other, similar statements regarding supporters of a certain candidate.

    There’s talk, too, about how power might change Caesar, discussion that resembles somewhat speculation about how a candidate making promises (or threats) while campaigning might act differently while in office. For Brutus, the worry is that once he reaches the top of the ladder Caesar will turn his back on those down below. He’s like a “serpent’s egg” concludes Brutus -- better to “kill him in the shell.”

    Back at Caesar’s, he speaks a little more boldly to his wife, Calpurnia, about those who might oppose him. “The things that threaten’d me ne’er look’d but on my back,” he says to her, “when they shall see the face of Caesar, they are vanished.” Calpurnia isn’t convinced, beckoning him not to attend a meeting at the senate-house, but Caesar won’t hear it, saying he’d be “a beast without a heart if he should stay home to-day for fear.”

    He goes to the senate-house and is killed, the threat against him having been realized. Thereafter come further threats between the anti- and pro-Caesar camps, as well as Caesar’s ghost coming to visit Brutus and threaten his well being. The play then ends in bloodshed with Caesar’s death being avenged and, interestingly, most of the deaths shown on stage resulting from suicides.

    Today is yet another “Super Tuesday,” with both parties’ primaries happening in a few more states, including my own. I voted this morning, in fact, a relatively easy process as my polling station is only just a couple of miles up the road from the farm.

    Hard not to feel a certain foreboding, though, what with all of the threats being bandied about, including threats of violence (from candidates and from their supporters). The results of today’s doling of delegates will affect what happens next, which will seem a promise for some and a threat to others. I look up at the calendar and realize another coincidence suggesting my choice of Caesar to read having been unsettlingly appropriate.

    I refer, of course, to the soothsayer’s threatening line from early in the play.

    “Beware the ides of March.”

    Photos: Julius Caesar (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953) (top); still from JFK Fort Worth Breakfast November 22 1963 TV coverage, KRLD-TV (middle).

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    Monday, March 14, 2016

    The German Game of “Poch”

    Continuing with this survey of “precursors” to poker, another European game dating way back to the mid-15th century called poch is another one often cited as an early version of the game. Also called pochspiel or sometimes pochen (or bockspiel or bocken), the name actually sounds a little like “poker,” and some argue it as the source for the name (although there are other candidates, too).

    The game originated in Germany and is still played there and in other places. There’s another game called glic that was played in France about the same time and which has many of the same rules. It spread through Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe over the next couple of centuries, then underwent a couple of modifications more recently making the modern version a little different. There’s a game in the U.K. called Pope Joan and another in North America called Tripoli that resemble poch as well, or at least in part.

    I’m going to try to summarize the rules for the original game of poch, as it has been described by several card game historians.

    Like the Spanish game mus, poch employs a smaller deck than does poker, usually a 32-card one. There are four suits, with the ranks being ace (here a high card) through seven (i.e., toss the sixes through deuces). Also like mus, the rules for this game are kind of complicated, although my sense is poch would be easier for first-timers to pick up.

    Poch requires a special round board that has has eight cups around the edge plus a ninth one in the middle. (That’s a picture up above of one from the late-19th century.) You could play it without such a board, but you’d need cups or some equivalent way of collecting chips during game play. The eight cups around the edge all have names (marked by those cards, if you can see) -- ace, king, queen, jack, ten, “marriage” (with a king and queen), “sequence” (the one with three cards, seven-eight-nine), and “poch” or “pocher” (designated by a joker, even though jokers aren’t used). The cup in the middle doesn’t have a name.

    I’m seeing references to needing three-to-six players to play, although I imagine you could play with just two or even more than six. However many are playing, before every hand each player must put one chip into each of the nine cups.

    The hand starts with the dealer dealing out the entire deck except for the last card which gets placed face up on top of the center cup. (The action goes clockwise in poch, as opposed to counter-clockwise in mus.) The suit of this last card designates the “trump” suit, also called the “pay suit.” By the way, this means some players might have one more card than others -- this doesn’t matter. The game is also played by just dealing a certain number of cards per player (e.g., five), with an additional card put in the middle.

    The game then goes through three stages or phases. The first stage basically involves players getting rewarded for having been dealt certain cards -- it’s sometimes called the “sweepstakes” stage. The second stage involves players betting on their hands and is really the only one that resembles poker. Then for the third one I’ve seen a couple of different explanations (described below).

    Okay, the first stage. Remember that card in the middle designating the trump suit? Any player holding the ace of that suit wins whatever is in the ace cup. Same goes for the king, queen, jack, and ten cups -- if you have that card in the trump suit, you get the chips in that cup. If anyone has both the king and the queen in the trump suit, that player gets what is in the “marriage” cup, and if anyone has 7-8-9 in the trump suit, that player gets what is in the “sequence” cup. (Never mind the “poch” cup or the center cup just now -- they come in later.)

    Now if all of the cards have been dealt out, it’ll usually happen that the ace, king, queen, jack, and ten cups get claimed here (unless the trump card is one of those ranks), while often no one will win what is in the “marriage” or “sequence” cups. Whatever goes unclaimed in one hand gets carried over to the next one (at the beginning of which players again put one chip in each of the cups).

    Moving onto the second stage in which players bet on their hands. The object is to have the highest-ranking hand here, and the only hands you can make are four of a kind, three of a kind (or a “triple”), and a pair. That’s it. Forget about straights or flushes or full houses. In fact, you can’t even have a two-pair hand -- if you have two pairs, you just count the highest of your pairs as a simple one-pair hand. If two players have quads or triples, the higher-ranked hand wins, and if two each have the same pair, the one with the trump suit wins.

    Betting goes clockwise around the table starting with the player to the dealer’s left. To bet you say “Ich poche” followed by the number of chips you want to bet -- so, “Ich poche 2” or three or “sieben” (if you’re German and betting seven) or whatever -- while putting chips in the poch cup corresponding to your bet.

    Subsequent players can call or raise or fold (as in poker), and players still in after the last bet is called show their hands and the highest hand wins. I’m not certain, but I think that the results of the first “sweepstakes” stage can potentially affect what happens here in the second stage since players earning chips in the first stage have to show cards to claim those winnings. Note that players can bluff with their bets as well.

    As I mentioned, I’ve seen a couple of different ideas put forth to describe the third stage, with the winner in each case getting what’s in the center cup.

    In one version, the winner of the second stage starts out playing a card face up on top of the center cup (whatever the card was designating the “pay suit” doesn’t figure). Then whoever has the next higher card of the same suit plays next, setting his or her card on top. That continues until no one has a higher card left in that suit, then whoever played the last card in that sequence plays another card (in another suit) and the process begins again. This goes on until someone plays his or her last card, and that’s the player who wins the third stage.

    Another version has players taking turns laying out cards one by one until they total 31 or less. Once no one can play a card without going over 31, the last player to play a card wins. I'm not 100% sure what the values are for the cards, but I’m guessing it’s not as complicated as in mus -- i.e., face cards are 10, seven, eight, and nine are worth those amounts; aces are probably just one (or 11, I suppose).

    Again, it’s really only that second stage with the betting and the rudimentary hand rankings that can be said to prefigure poker in a direct way. And in fact if you look into histories of rummy you see poch likewise listed there as an antecedent game, which makes sense.

    Photo: Board for the card game ‘Poch’ with copper receptacles, catawiki.

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    Friday, March 11, 2016

    The Spanish Game of “Mus”

    The Spanish game of mus (pronounced like “moose”) is thought to have originated in the Basque Country near the border of Spain and France. References to the vying game first begin to appear during the mid-18th century, although the game itself was undoubtedly played earlier. It’s also still played today in Spain and France and turns up elsewhere in Europe as well as in Central and South America.

    The game of mus strikes me as being more like bridge or spades than poker, mainly because it is played by a couple of two-player teams with partners sitting opposite one another. I’ve been reading through a few different explanations of how to play mus, and there are so many interesting and complicated rules and variants it’s almost overwhelming to try to summarize them all. In fact, I’m not going to, although I’ll see if I can at least give an idea here of how the game is played while highlighting a few of its more interesting details.

    The game uses a 40-card Baraja Española or Spanish deck. The four suits are pretty cool in the Spanish deck -- swords, batons, cups, and coins -- although in mus the suits have no significance. The ranks (going from highest-to-lowest) are the rey (king), the caballo (knight or horse), the sota (knave or jack), then seven down to ace (always low). (You could play mus with a regular deck of cards, then, just by discarding the eights, nines, and tens.) As the first of many complications, the three is sometimes considered equal in rank to the rey -- i.e., tied for the highest.

    The game is a race to 40 points, with matches usually involving teams playing best two games out of three. I’ll explain below how teams get their points. Play starts with each player being dealt four cards, dealt counterclockwise which is also the direction of all subsequent action. The player sitting to the dealer’s right who gets to act first is called the mano.

    As in draw poker, players then have a chance to discard and draw to improve their hands, but only if all four agree to do so by saying “mus” in turn. A single “no hay mus” from anyone operates as a veto, meaning no one gets to discard and draw. Players can draw again if all four agree, and again and again with the discards reshuffled if they run out of cards. But the drawing stops as soon as one player puts a halt to it. Got it?

    Okay, so now each player has his or her four-card hand. Now it’s time to start the “vying.” Here’s where things get really complicated.

    You know how split-pot games work in which players compete for both the “high” and the “low” halves of the pot, right? In mus hands get compared against each not just one or two ways, but four different ways. There’s the Grande (the high) and the Chica (the low), but also the Pares (meaning “pairs”) and the Juego (which means “game”).

    But it isn’t like you just draw your hands, bet on them, then see who wins each of the four categories and split the pot accordingly. Rather you bet separately on each of the four different categories, then at showdown figure out who has won what. In other words you go through the betting for the Grande, then when that is done you bet on the Chica, and so on. Then everyone shows their cards.

    The procedure for betting is mostly similar to the way it goes in poker. The first player to act (the mano) either bets or passes, if the mano bets, the next player can either fold, call, or raise, and so on until the last bet is called. Remember, though, that you’re playing with a partner, so you’re betting with that other person and in the end whoever has the best hand wins the pot for the whole team. A team can win, say, the Grande right away if both players on the other team fold to bets. If there’s a call, though, the showdown will settle who wins for that category.

    That actually describes how the betting goes for the Grande and the Chica. For the Pares and the Juego, players first have to make a declaration about their hands -- namely to say if they have a pair or not (in the first case) and if they have a Juego or not (in the second), the latter referring to the number of points their four cards total (explained below).

    There’s also a special bet called the Órdago which is essentially a kind of “all-in” in which a player stakes the outcome of the entire game on a single category. If called, the team with a winning hand wins the entire game right then and there, but if no one calls, the team with a player who said “órdago” wins that category only.

    This is getting ridiculous, right? But really we’re only getting started.

    The best Grande hand is the one with the highest card or cards in it. Thus any hand with a rey (king) or three beats any hand without either of those two cards. If two players have a rey, the next-highest card determines the winner. And so on.

    The best Chica hand is the lowest hand, determined kind of like you do in lowball or split-pot games. Somebody holding 4-5-7-R would beat someone else holding 5-7-S-R. And 2-6-7-7 would beat 2-6-7-S.

    When it comes to the Pares, having two pairs or duples is best, and if you have quads that’s considered the same as having two pairs. Next best is to have three of a kind or medias (that’s right -- two pair beats trips here). Then comes one pair or par simple. If there’s a tie, the player acting first wins (i.e., kickers don’t matter). Thus being the mano is advantageous.

    Finally, the winner of the Juego is the player with the highest-ranked hand as determined by the number points the four cards are worth, with the point values being as follows:

  • rey (R), caballo (C), sota (J), and three = each worth 10 points
  • seven = 7 points
  • six = 6 points
  • five = 5 points
  • four = 4 points
  • two and ace = each worth 1 point
  • To have a “Juego” you have to have at least 31 points in your hand (thus the need for the declaration described above). But 31 is also the highest-ranked Juego hand to have, followed by 32, then 40, 37, 36, 35, 34, and 33. Got all that? (Ha!) Again, if there’s a tie, the player acting first wins.

    Also, if no one has at least 31 points and a “Juego,” you play for what is called the Punto which is simply the highest point total with 30 being the highest (and best), 29 the next-best, and so on. (Four would be the lowest you could possibly have.)

    Now I referred to the betting above. You can bet and raise and call and fold like in poker, and the team winning each category wins whatever is bet. There are lots more specifics here -- including covering what is won if no one wants to bet in a given category -- but I’m going to skip over them and just refer you to this lengthy description of the rules if you want to sort it all out. Betting is done with stones, actually, with the first team to accumulate 40 stones winning the game.

    There are lots of other variations allowed and even versions of the game for three or five players, but I’m going to skip all that, too. Let me mention one last fun element of the game -- the non-verbal signaling allowed between partners.

    There are certain facial gestures that are permitted by which players can let their partners know more about their hands. Closing your eyes means you have a bad hand. Sticking your tongue out a little bit means you have two aces. Raising your eyebrows means you have two pairs (or duples). And there are many more of these gestures -- I’m not making this up -- with special names for all of them.

    Again, you can search around online for more details about how to play mus. You can even play mus online at a few sites, although I’ve never tried it. In any event, hopefully it’s clear enough how the game could be called a precursor to poker, involving as it does a similar deck, as well as betting and the possibility of bluffing.

    Just think, though, how easy it was to learn hold’em, and how long it would take you to learn mus.

    Image: Spanish deck printed in Valencia in 1778, public domain.

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    Thursday, March 10, 2016

    Perusing Poker’s Precursors

    Recently I’ve been spending time learning more about several games often referred to as “precursors” to poker. I’m talking about various card games -- most European -- that appeared just before poker emerged in the early 19th century and that have a lot of the same elements including using a similar deck, incorporating betting and (in some cases) bluffing, and having other common characteristics.

    A couple of prompts caused me to go down this road. One has to do with a larger project I’ve begun -- one dovetailing on my “Poker in American Film and Culture” course -- that’s requiring me to do such research. The other came during a conversation from last month while at European Poker Tour Dublin with Howard Swains and Stephen Bartley regarding an idea they once had for the EPT.

    Those who follow the EPT know they’ve been pretty open to adding all sorts of out-of-the-ordinary events to the festival schedules, especially since they began expanding those schedules in recent years. You know, events like those “Deuces Wild” or “Win the Button” tourneys and the like. At EPT Dublin they had both of those, plus a “Chess and NL” event, a “Quadruple Stud” (involving four different stud variants), a 5-Card PLO tourney, and other non-NLHE offerings.

    Anyhow, the idea involved each EPT stop also featuring an event in which players would play one of these “precursor” games that had originated in the host country.

    For example, at EPT Barcelona they could have a mus event, the 18th-century vying game that first turns up in the Basque country up in the northern part of Spain. At EPT Deauville (when the tour still went there) they could have a poque event, the French game often regarded as a direct antecedent to poker. At EPT Berlin they could play poch, at EPT Sanremo there could be a primiera event, EPT London could feature a brag tournament, and so on.

    I thought it was a very cool idea, although the more I think about it the more I start to realize some the challenges that would cause it to be difficult to pull off. In some cases I assume local regulations might make it hard to introduce a game that otherwise wasn’t already played (and allowed). It also might be difficult simply to get players to play such events, or to find the appropriate buy-in level that would attract more than just a small handful of curiosity seekers.

    Looking more closely at the rules for some of these games makes me realize another significant obstacle to such an idea. At least a couple of the games are so friggin’ complicated it would probably be too arduous for most to figure out how to play them, let alone for the EPT staff to figure out how to deal them and build tournaments around them.

    Just for fun (and since I’ve involved myself in this stuff already), I’m going to use the next several posts to discuss some of these games one at a time. I’ll start tomorrow with the Spanish game of mus, for no other reason than that’s the one that seems the most complicated to me at first glance.

    Image: “The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds” (1635), Georges de la Tour, public domain.

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    Wednesday, March 09, 2016

    The Futures Is Now, Bro

    Was listening today to the new episode of Chad Millman’s Behind the Bet$ podcast for ESPN, a show I tend to enjoy despite not being a huge sports bettor.

    The focus of the episode is the upcoming Major League Baseball season, and the conversation between Millman and his guests ranged over several topics although mostly had to do with futures bets, including those “over/under” bets on total games won as well as bets on a team winning their division, league, or World Series.

    The conversation began with the Chicago Cubs, who Millman pointed out had opened at 10-to-1 to win the World Series (following last year, I assume) and now had moved all of the way to a kind of ridiculous 4-to-1 (I’m not sure which sportsbook he’s using). As the group pointed out, that’s more of a favorite than the most favored team often tends to be going into the playoffs, let alone to start the season.

    The Cubs talk was interesting enough, and I imagine might have disturbed my Cubs-hating uncle who wants nothing more than to see them miss the World Series for a 71st-straight year. But I was intrigued by a point made by Paul Bessire of PredictionMachine about how much these World Series bets tend to favor the house -- indeed by a margin much greater than lots of other bets, including other futures bets.

    The example of the Cubs who no one is giving more than a 20% chance of winning the World Series right now (what you’d need to break even on a 4-to-1 bet) is obvious enough. Bessire said after crunching all his numbers he personally had the Cubs at about 15% to win, the best of any team but not close enough to the odds being offered to make that a worthwhile bet to make.

    Really, though, there are no good World Series futures bets. “If you dig into the numbers,” Bissere explained, and “look at all the confidence that you would need or at least the break-even points for all of the individual teams on the World Series odds and add them altogether you would get almost 200%, meaning that there’s almost 100% juice built into that.”

    Like I say, I’m not a big sports bettor, but the point Bissere is making is one I’ve noticed before when perusing these kinds of futures bets. Offering the Cubs at 4-to-1 suggests they are 20% to win the World Series, if the line weren’t overvaluing the Cubs (which it is). The next biggest favorite is the Los Angeles Dodgers at 9-to-1 (or 10%), followed by the Houston Astros at 10-to-1 (about 9%) and so on down the list. What Bissere is saying is that when you add all 30 teams’ odds up, the total is close to 200%, which means collectively the 30 teams are being overvalued by nearly 100%.

    I found a list of World Series futures -- not exactly the ones they had on the show, but close (including having Chicago at 4-to-1) -- and just for fun decided to add up the percentages. They actually only totaled about 125%, so unless I’m missing something, which I could be, the futures list I saw (at VegasInsider) wasn’t as punishing as the one the guys were referencing on the show.

    Something similar, actually, usually results from these odds on final tables in poker tournaments such as we’ve seen at the World Series of Poker now and then -- namely, the odds are way too short for everyone. I know I’ve written about this at least a couple of times here before, such as in 2012 when I discussed odds being offered at the Rio Race and Sportsbook on the nine players making that year’s WSOP Main Event final table.

    That year you could place bet on chip leader Jesse Sylvia to win at 3-to-2 (no shinola), which if taken at face value would suggest he was 40% to win. The odds for eventual winner Greg Merson (third in chips heading into the final table) were 5-to-2 (about 28.5%). Adding up the nine players, the total was close to 175%, illustrating the same point being made on the show about the exorbitant juice in World Series futures.

    The majority of those making these kinds of futures bets are more likely to be seeking entertainment than value, of course, although I know there are some sharps who manage to find bets worth risking among the offerings. If I remember correctly, before the season my Carolina Panthers were something like 40-to-1 to win Super Bowl 50, a game they managed to enter as a heavy favorite. Alas, those who made that bet, like the Panthers, were unable to cash in.

    For me, listening to the talk about over/unders and futures works as a good preview of what expectations are for the coming year, something that for me can make watching the actual games a little more interesting -- even without having bet on them.

    Photo: “race & sports book” (detail), fictures. CC BY 2.0.

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    Tuesday, March 08, 2016

    A Heads-Up Couple

    I’ve had the good fortune to have had the chance to cover poker tournaments in a variety of countries around the world, including having on both the European Poker Tour and the Latin American Poker Tour.

    There isn’t usually too much overlap among players in the EPT and the LAPT -- not too surprising, of course, given that the festivals take place on different continents. The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in the Bahamas is where the tours all collide, more or less, with the recent addition of the LAPT Bahamas event helping encourage further the mixing of players from Europe, Central and South America (and the U.S., too).

    Ivan Luca of Argentina is one of the few who I’ll encounter turning up at both EPT and LAPT events, which means I’ve also grown accustomed to seeing his girlfriend, Maria Lampropoulos, often railing him. Luca’s been a consistent performer for a few years now, and currently sits inside the top 30 in the Global Poker Index overall rankings.

    Lampropoulos also plays and has done well, too, occasionally going deep in events at festivals I have covered. Just recently she made it relatively deep in the EPT Dublin Main Event (finishing 58th), while Luca was final tabling both the €25K High Roller and another €5K side event.

    It’s come up a few times, then, whenever Lampropoulos is in an event that someone will mention the fact that she and Luca are a couple, usually with an eye toward bringing that side story into the coverage somehow. And it usually does get mentioned, although my instinct often is not to make such a big deal out of poker couples unless there’s some compelling reason to do so.

    For example, in 2011 you might remember how with just four tables left both Doc Sands and Erika Moutinho -- then a couple, later married -- were among those remaining, and in fact they were seated next to each other on the feature table for a time. That was an instance where it wouldn’t have made much sense not to draw attention to the pair’s relationship. (Sands ended up finishing 30th and Moutinho 29th.)

    Was following the conclusion of the LAPT Chile Main Event today which ended with Rodrigo Strong of Brazil outlasting the Chilean Fabian Chauriye heads-up to win. Luca and Lampropoulos chose not to play in Viña del Mar, instead deciding to play in the Eureka Rozvadov Main Event over in the Czech Republic, and as it happened another one of those interesting situations happened making it impossible not to remark on the relationship status of a couple of poker players.

    That’s because out of 682 entries, Luca and Lampropoulos both survived to make the final table, and then somewhat incredibly both made it to heads-up as well. At that point they struck a deal (natch), then Luca went on to win.

    I watched a bit of the live stream on Twitch over on the PokerRoomKings channel this afternoon -- including the heads-up portion -- featuring one of the most unenthusiastic poker commentators I’ve ever heard. During the hour or so I watched his analysis seemed almost entirely limited to complaints about the pace of play. (I’ll quote a sample: “This is hardly bearable. Jesus Christ. God this has taken too long of our lives.”)

    Too bad, because it seemed like a story worth having some fun with, especially when the pair got into some table talk regarding postflop decisions in one of the hands. (That was when we heard that bit quoted above, in fact.) Off the top of my head, can’t think of another instance of a couple getting to heads-up in a tournament as big as that one. Deserved a bit more excitement, I thought.

    The tourney ended with a kind of cooler for Lampropoulos when a river card that filled a straight for her also made a flush for Luca. I suppose that wasn’t the appropriate outcome on this International Women’s Day, but it still made for a pretty cool story, one you can read more about over on the PokerStars blog and at PokerNews.

    Image: Eureka Poker Tour logo.

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    Monday, March 07, 2016

    When Nixon’s Ace in the Hole Turned Into a Blank

    Following last night’s debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, CNN aired what will be the first of a series of shows called Race to the White House looking at past elections, in this case focusing on the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

    I’m currently teaching my course “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Poker, and Politics,” and in fact we were just reading about and discussing the 1960 race, including watching lengthy excerpts from the first JFK-RMN debate. I made sure to let my students know about last night’s program, then, for a couple of reasons.

    For one, since we had only just gotten through discussing the race I thought they’d find it interesting to compare what we’d learned with what was included in the hour-long show. Secondly, I like reminding them how even though we’re studying people and events from a half-century ago, many are still interested in these things and believe them to be relevant today -- as indicated by CNN giving an hour of prime time to the ’60 race.

    The ads for last night’s show made it seem as though the focus would be on the historic first debate (of four) between Kennedy and Nixon that took place on September 26, 1960, a notion furthered by the fact that the show was being paired with the Dems’ debate. In truth, though, the debate only earned a tiny bit of attention during the hour, fleetingly discussed for just a few minutes during the latter half of the show.

    The rest of the hour was spent covering the respective candidates’ campaigns via commentary from a few academics and others, the showing of numerous clips from 1960, and some fleeting reenactments employed to enhance the story. Kevin Spacey -- evoking his House of Cards role as U.S. president -- is the narrator for the series, and was heard at the start of the hour suggesting (somewhat misleadingly) that Nixon was hopelessly outmatched by Kennedy as a politician and campaigner.

    “You think you know the rules,” he says as we watch an actor portraying Nixon in shadowy profile. “But what happens when you discover you don’t even know how to play the game?”

    Following such a line, it isn’t surprising to see a lot of emphasis thereafter on Kennedy’s right moves and Nixon’s wrong ones during the campaign. That said, the show provides some balance as well, illustrating in a necessarily cursory way pros and cons for both candidates. Near the end it is emphasized that JFK was as adept as RMN was when it came to “dirty tricks,” although the show doesn’t really dwell on too many examples (other than alluding to possible voter fraud in Illinois and Texas tilting the election JFK’s way).

    Nixon’s eagerness to debate Kennedy is correctly presented as a misstep. During the quick presentation of the first debate, Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow and flop sweat is of course highlighted, and in fact there’s even a quick pre-debate clip of Nixon saying “think I better shave.” The much-repeated line about those listening on radio thinking Nixon “won” the debate while TV viewers favored JFK is uncritically repeated again, something that started as a few anecdotes and got blown up into some sort of ultimate signifier of not just the debate but the entire campaign and election.

    Other more meaningful moments from the 1960 campaign are highlighted, including JFK’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Martin Luther King’s arrest in Georgia and JFK’s phone call to Coretta, and a couple of Nixon’s “bad luck” moments including being hospitalized for two full weeks at the end of August and beginning of September.

    Nixon’s hospitalization resulted from an infection that resulted from his banging his knee on a car door during a stop in Greensboro, NC in mid-August, part of his foolhardy effort to visit all 50 states during the campaign -- something he insisted on doing even after his injury and hospitalization.

    In his discussion of the 1960 campaign in Six Crises (written shortly afterwards), Nixon concludes with a list of 16 things he “should have” done, all decisions which in his mind likely contributed to costing him the election. He does not include campaigning in all 50 states among the list of items, though he does lead it off with “I should have refused to debate Kennedy.”

    For the second item on the list, and perhaps the second-most important one in retrospect, Nixon says “I should have used Eisenhower more in the campaign.” There is brief reference to Ike having been largely absent from the campaign near the end of the CNN program. With less than a week to go before the election, Spacey’s narration suggests the Nixon campaign had been cleverly waiting to use Eisenhower at the very last to produce a greater effect.

    “Nixon has one last card to play,” he says, “his old boss, ex-General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.” Despite the card-playing metaphor, no indication is made to the fact that both Ike and Nixon were poker players.

    We see shots from the ticker tape parade of November 2nd in which Ike finally appeared with Nixon, an event which is said to have given Nixon a late boost as Election Day drew near. I anticipated another turn in the story here -- one explaining how this “one last card” wasn’t nearly as effective as it might have been. But the program moved in a different direction.

    This might have been the biggest omission from the show, actually. Not only was Eisenhower mostly absent from the campaign, but in late August 1960 (just a week after Nixon bumped his knee in Greensboro), Eisenhower infamously concluded his weekly press conference with a line that would greatly hurt RMN in the weeks leading up to the debate.

    “We understand that the power of decision is entirely yours, Mr. President,” began a reporter, leading up to what would be the last question of the presser. “I just wondered if you could give us an example of a major idea of his [i.e., Nixon's] that you had adopted in that role, as the decider and final, uh....”

    About to leave, Eisenhower said “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”

    Afterwards Eisenhower would say he didn’t mean to suggest he actually needed a week to come up with an idea of Nixon’s his administration had found useful. Rather he was just referring to the fact that he’d be giving another press conference a week later and they could continue the discussion then.

    But the damage was done. In fact, in that first debate a month later Nixon would be asked early on about Eisenhower’s statement, putting RMN on the defensive right away. And not long after that, the Kennedy campaign built a television ad around Ike’s line -- take a look:

    I was a little surprised CNN didn’t touch on this part of the story of the 1960 campaign, the moment when Nixon’s “ace in the hole” suddenly turned into a useless blank. Still, for those unfamiliar with the 1960 race there was enough in the program perhaps to whet your appetite to learn more.

    Image: Graphic from CNN advertisement, Race for the White House, 3/6/16 episode.

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