Friday, January 30, 2015

On the Props

Was spending part of today considering all of these Super Bowl prop bets. I was put in the mood to do so after having posted a discussion with Rich Ryan over on PokerNews the focus of which was Super Bowl betting -- this week’s “Inside Gaming” column.

As mentioned there, last year the Nevada sports books took in more wagers than ever before, besting the previous year’s record by a lot. They also profited considerably thanks in part to heavy action on favorite Denver and Seattle ending up crushing, earning more percentage-wise in nearly a decade.

Super Bowl prop bets are significant for the sports books, with many of them longshots and thus great opportunities for the books to win. The lines can be a bit skewy on them, too, which perhaps opens up some opportunities for savvy bettors. But on the whole they’re hard to read (at least for an amateur like me).

Among the items I read today was USA Today’s “19 craziest prop bets for Super Bowl XLIX.” Like a lot of folks this week, they look to Bovada -- the site we online poker players know better as the-one-that-used-to-be-Bodog -- as their source of props. Bovada has more than 500 prop bets listed, with practically every detail regarding what might happen in Arizona on Sunday covered.

These “19 craziest” ones include many with nothing to do with the actual game itself. Those include bets on Katy Perry’s wardrobe during her halftime performance as well as how many times she will be mentioned during the first half, whether or not Idina Menzel will forget a word of the national anthem, Bill Belichick’s hoodie color and type, which team owner (Robert Kraft or Paul Allen) will be shown more often during the game, the number of times Gisele Bundchen (Tom Brady’s wife) will be shown, the number of times deflated balls will be mentioned, the number of viewers, who the Super Bowl MVP will first mention after the game, whether Marshawn Lynch will grab his crotch after scoring a TD, and whether Bill Belichick will smile. Of these I most like the one about whether or not Al Michaels will make any gambling references during the telecast (i.e., to the point spread, over/under, game odds, prop bets).

Even the game-related ones have to do with extracurriculars, like the parlay pairing whether or not Punxsatawney Phil sees his showdow and the game’s outcome, or the one comparing the length of the Silva-Diaz UFC fight and LeGarrette Blount’s rushing attempts. In fact among these “crazy” bets are only four football-only ones -- whether or not Tom Brady will throw a TD or interception first, whether or not one of the kickers will win MVP, which Seattle player will catch their first pass, and how many field goals Seattle will make.

Every one of these feels like a sucker bet, as do many of the other props even if one might legitimately have an edge betting a particular side of them. Heck even the game itself -- which Rich tells me the Football Outsiders guys are describing as historically remarkable in terms of how mathematically even the two teams are talent-wise -- feels especially hard to predict.

Who do you think will win on Sunday? Other than the sports books, that is.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Big Big Bets Between Beal and Brunson in Bobby’s Room

Had a non-poker playing (or following) friend ask me yesterday “What’s going on in poker these days?”

He asks me the same question every six weeks or so, and more often than not I’m answering by telling him wherever it is I might have recently gone for a tournament. He then almost always follows up with a question about who won the most or what was the biggest game-slash-tourney I’ve seen or heard about.

More than once I’ve concluded my response to the latter question with some version of the statement that “it’s the same guys trading it back and forth” -- usually referring to those “super high roller” events which do often feature the same small population of players.

However yesterday I had a different response, referring instead to that Andy Beal-Todd Brunson heads-up session of fixed limit hold’em in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio that happened last weekend, the one in which each player brought $5 million to the game and Brunson ultimately won it all.

Tweets by poker pro Kyle Loman about the match (who snapped the photo above of Beal and Brunson, with Tex Dolly also there to the right) started Friday night and lasted into Saturday morning, covering about five-and-a-half hours altogether. Loman noted how they were using pink $25,000 chips and the limits were $50K/$100K, making a loss of $5 million equal just 50 big bets. Or should I say BIG bets

Loman did a great job with his updates, providing about 25 tweets altogether noting the changing stack sizes as Brunson gradually whittled away at Beal’s stack before taking the last of his chips.

The game, of course, represents a belated reprise of the famous games between the banker and investor and the team of pros dubbed the “Corporation” that first took place over a decade back. The 2001-2004 games were chronicled in Michael Craig’s The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King (2005), then there was another round in 2006, the last before Beal’s surprise return to the tables a few days ago.

My friend was impressed to hear that amount, although truth be told it wasn’t all that different to him (or me) than to hear of a player winning $200K in a tourney. Meanwhile, to look at a $5 million loss from Beal’s point of view -- he’s worth something like $11 billion, apparently, which would make a $5 million loss the equivalent something like $25 for the average wage-earner in the U.S. today.

I don’t know the details, but surely Brunson wasn’t just playing with his own money. In any event, the story made it impossible with my friend to end with the usual sign-off about the same guys trading money back and forth.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The WSOP Main Event: Land of 1000 Cashers

A mildly surprising change of course chosen by the World Series of Poker yesterday.

After having announced in late December the return of the the $10 million guaranteed first prize for the Main Event (as was in place last year), the WSOP has now decided instead to jettison that idea in favor of a couple of others suggested by a few pros over Twitter in the wake of the earlier announcement.

As you’ve probably heard, the plan now will be to pay out the top 1,000 spots in the Main Event -- over 300 more than were paid a year ago -- so long as the $10,000 buy-in tournament attracts at least 5,000 entrants (as it has every year since 2005).

Meanwhile, all nine of those making the final table will be guaranteed at least $1 million paydays, with the first-place guarantee no longer in place. The sample payouts suggested by the WSOP based on last year's field size reveal one big consequence of that change -- a major pay jump between 10th and 9th place (from $550K up to $1M).

Darrel Plant has already written up an article for PokerNews that does a good job discussing the new plan, including showing how the payouts in 2015 would compare to last year given a similarly-sized field. Check out “Paying the Top 1,000: Comparing 2014 WSOP Main Event Payouts with 2015 Changes” for the skinny.

One other thing the comparison reveals is how much less nearly everyone who makes the top 600-700 will be earning this time around (the seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-place finishers being exceptions) in order to payout the extra 300-plus spots.

Can't say I expected WSOP so readily to accept both of these ideas, for which an online survey asking for input appears to have built further support. When hearing of them before they didn't seem all that compatible -- i.e., paying more players overall while also paying the top nine more, although as it worked out most of the top nine will actually get less.

I was writing before about how in theory I'd rather the Main Event not be made even more unlike every other poker tournament, and this new payout schedule certainly continues the process of making the Main Event even more different with its wholly atypical payouts. But as I also was saying before, much of the earlier history of the Main Event featured unusual payouts, too, at least compared to “standard” schedules often employed today.

In any case, I know just the song they should play in the Amazon Room when the money bubble bursts this summer:

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

This Is You Asking a Question and This Is Me Answering It

One night during a dinner break at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure earlier this month, the topic turned to discussing poker players who weren’t interested in doing interviews.

We weren’t talking about Daniel Colman and all of the hubbub from last summer at the WSOP (although his example did come up). No, in fact there are a few other players who aren’t so enamored with doing interviews, especially during breaks in play when they might be making better use of their time. It’s by far the exception -- in truth, the great majority are more than amenable -- but it comes up now and again.

Among the questions raised by the topic was one considering whether or not players in a poker tournament -- say a big WSOP or EPT event or some other widely-covered tournament -- were at all obligated to give interviews. The question elicted a variety of opinions. It also inspired me to introduce the analogous case of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.

You might have heard about his appearance at the NFL’s “Media Day” today, and if so you got an idea why I might have brought him up in this context. The NFL does in fact require players to submit to interviews, and most readily comply. But Lynch is not a fan of giving them, and so has gained notoriety for the ways he’s kinda-sorta went along with them by answering questions with non-answers.

He went through one post-game interview only answering “Yeah” over and over, regardless of the questions. There was another in which he responded each time by saying “Thank you for asking.” Today he did something similar, repeating 29 different times (ESPN counted) with some close variation of the non-responsive response “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”

I’m mostly ambivalent about Lynch’s unwillingness to do interviews. I know some get pretty heated about it, either taking issue or wanting to defend him. I’m more interested in watching him play than talk, and in fact his anarchic approach to interviews provides something more interesting to consider than what the majority of interviews with athletes produce.

Lynch isn’t the first athlete to repeat a non sequitur over and again as answers to interview questions. Former NBA great Rasheed Wallace did the same at least once, I recall, going through a whole postgame presser saying “Both teams played hard” over and again. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook did something similar earlier this month answering “Good win for us” (and near variations) repeatedly.

In those cases the non-answer at least related to the game, albeit non-specifically. Lynch’s answers are not even that relevant, although like the others they still perhaps draw attention to the fact that most sports interviews -- both questions and answers -- are often entirely comprised of redundancies. Even the athletes and coaches who do respond to the questions often do so in ways that communicate very little, although there are exceptions there, too, with some interviewees sharing genuine insight or at least engaging personalities than enhance our enjoyment watching them perform on the field or court.

I remember watching a football game a few months ago after which a sideline reporter grabbed a player from the winning team to ask again the same “how did it feel?” question we’ve heard so many times, with the answer also echoing the same expressions we’ve heard time and again. I was inspired to tweet a paraphrase of the reporter’s question (see left).

Getting back to the poker players and the occasional example of one not wanting to do an interview, I’ve never minded that too much either. That said, it’s always a little disappointing to hear a poker player talk about not doing interviews not because they are inconvenient, but because of some sort of principle related to the idea that they gain nothing of value by doing them.

When that happens -- and again, I’m talking about something that’s actually surprisingly rare -- I’m always a little dispirited mainly because it brings to the foreground how poker for some isn’t necessarily “just a game” or an opportunity for amusement, but a business in which anything that can potentially affect the bottom line negatively is to be avoided. (But I know that’s an easy position for me to take.)

Interviewing is hard -- much harder than it looks. And being interviewed isn’t easy, either.

What else do I think about it all? Thank you for asking.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

The Best Opening Chord Ever

Over the weekend I had a chance to go to a screening of A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’ first (and best) movie. Was dubbed a 50th anniversary showing, although that milestone passed a few months back as it first premiered in the late summer of 1964.

I’d seen it many times before, of course, although it was great fun to watch it with an audience. They didn’t scream like the kids apparently did back in the day, but there was a lot of laughing and people obviously enjoying the show. The venue also had a nice, brief introductory lecture by a local academic who shared some background regarding the making of the film.

He also talked a little about the spectacular opening chord with which the song begins (and the film, too). He subscribed to the theory that John and George are each striking different chords, Paul is hitting a note on the bass, Ringo is tapping both his snare drum and a cymbal, and producer George Martin is also hitting a chord on a Steinway. However it is constructed, it’s gotta be the best first impression ever.

He suggested (correctly) that it was essentially intended as an “exploitation” film -- i.e., a vehicle by which to exploit a batch of new Beatles tunes not unlike the Presley pics that were appearing two or three times per year back then. But it turned out to be so much more, thanks largely to Alun Owen’s inspired screenplay, the unanticipated comic talents of the Fab Four, and, of course, all of those genuinely transporting songs.

The boys do play cards in the film. Early on, while aboard the train, they play a game while also performing “I Should Have Known Better.” Not sure what the game is -- it’s not poker, but some trick-taking game like a version of rummy or Euchre, with Ringo appearing to win. Just after that scene Ringo gets an invitation to visit a gambling club -- “The Circle Club” -- amid his fan mail, but Paul’s grandfather steals it and ends up there playing baccarat until the boys collect him back.

My favorite part is the conclusion and the medley of tunes played for the television show, with the last one -- “She Loves You” -- the best of the bunch. It’s hard to explain, but I feel some weird, hard tug of nostalgia watching it, as though I don’t want the song to end. I think it’s partly related to my father having told me a story of going to see A Hard Day’s Night back in ’64 while on a trip to Washington, D.C., and what a memorable occasion that was for him.

By coincidence, last week I happened to dial up a documentary about the Knack on YouTube -- Getting the Knack -- and after getting hooked by the first few minutes ended up watching (and enjoying) the whole thing. The Knack ruled the summer of 1979 as far as pop music went, and while I was a Beatle fan previously Get the Knack was one of the very first albums I ever bought, and I remember the record store owner pointing out to me how it was a No. 1 record when I did.

As the doc pointed out, the Knack pretty obviously appropriated certain elements of the Beatles pop “formula” (as it were), such as with the LP packaging (and title, which paraphrased Meet the Beatles), the band’s look, and their sound (to an extent). They’d similarly appeal to a teen and preteen crowd, too, “conquering” America for a short while, anyway, and thus furthering the comparisons.

The film talks about how the Knack chose their name -- apparently after a bit of surfing through a dictionary looking for interesting words. I’d always thought that, too, was a conscious bit of Beatle following. After all, the director of A Hard Day’s Night was Richard Lester, and his very next film was a comedy called The Knack... and How to Get It. But there was no mention of that in the doc.

Of course for the Knack things didn’t continue so swimmingly, their great first impression not lasting for them. Though talented, they hadn’t the deep well of creativity the Beatles did. But that wasn’t the only reason they weren’t able to sustain their success.

The fellow introducing A Hard Day’s Night pointed out to us how integral Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, was to their early success, including helping facilitate the making of the film. Meanwhile the Knack clearly lacked such guidance, with various poor decisions by those who managed them (e.g., having them not give interviews, snub the Grammys, refuse invites to appear on American Bandstand and Saturday Night Live, etc.) helping fuel a swift, aggressive backlash that took them down as fast as they’d been built up.

I guess I feel a bit of nostalgia for the Knack, too, even if I don’t dial up their music all that much anymore. I’ll always keep playing the Beatles, though.

Here, enjoy the opening of the film -- and that chord!

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Talking Team Poker and the Global Poker Masters

Was reading here at week’s end about this new Global Poker Masters event scheduled for March 21-22 in Malta in a couple of articles appearing over on the All In site -- one by Storms Reback criticizing called “Empty Cup?” and a response Alex Dreyfus, CEO of Global Poker Index (who is sponsoring and organizing the event), titled “Masters Plan.”

Like you (probably), I’d become aware of the Global Poker Masters via a few tweets and other random references here and there, but hadn’t really paid too much attention to it. As a quick look at the very detailed and sharp-looking Global Poker Masters website confirms, the event will involve eight national teams each made up of five players competing against each other for the title of “World Champion Nation.” Here’s the trailer they’ve created for it:

The nations involved are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States (making it more a North America-Europe competition than a “world” one). I think that ideally each team’s players would have been the highest-ranked ones according to the GPI, but in reality they’ll mostly consist of the highest-ranked players who would commit to playing. I’m not sure, actually, how the teams are being formed, but there will be four players (with high GPI rankings) plus a “wild card” player on each.

I believe the format resembles that of the Americas Cup of Poker that recently played out at the PCA with sit-n-gos the first day then heads-up matches the second (I wrote a couple of posts about the Americas Cup here and here). There are still a couple of months to go to learn how it all works, and the GPI has already done pretty well to start getting word out about the event. It will be live streamed as well on the Global Poker Masters website and other places, too, so there will be more attention drawn to it in March for sure.

The event is being referred to as “Poker’s World Cup,” and Reback’s editorial begins with him asking the question “Does poker really need its own version of soccer’s World Cup?” He goes on to wonder why attempts keep being made to take poker, a “quintessentially individual pursuit,” and shoehorn it into a team game. Reback takes issue with the anointing of the event’s winners as “the world champion.” He also mentions the efforts of the GPI and Dreyfus to “sportify” poker -- that is, to promote the game’s affinity to other sports (including its skill component) in order to widen its mainstream appeal. “But I don’t see how this two-day team poker event is going to achieve that end,” opines Reback.

In his response, Dreyfus correctly notes that just because previous attempts at team poker haven’t been successful, that shouldn’t necessarily make it wrong to keep trying. (In fact, Dreyfus brings up a longer list of failed attempts than did Reback.) He notes events like golf’s Ryder Cup and the Davis Cup in tennis as analogous examples to this effort to make a team game out of an individual one. Dreyfus also clarifies that the “world champion” tag for the winning team is hardly meant to usurp the one given to the WSOP Main Event winner.

To me Dreyfus’s most interesting point about the Global Poker Masters comes in a digression where he explains that “To promote poker in the mainstream, we need to create content and excuses that appeal to the journalists,” going on to identify sports as the “vertical that best fits poker.” In other words (if I’m following), present poker in ways that more closely resemble sports -- including creating new versions of the game (like the team format) -- and you’re more likely to generate more interesting coverage and perhaps capture the interest of a new audience.

While I’m not sure I entirely agree with the idea that sports provides the best available avenue via which to increase poker’s appeal, when Dreyfus goes on to complain about the numbing repetition of much current poker reporting, I can’t really dispute his point. “But honestly, aren’t sports journalists tired of always seeing the same headlines?” asks Dreyfus. “‘This new random name won $1.2 million in another poker tournament.’ These are the same headlines we’ve been reading for 10 years. There is (almost) no innovation in the way we serve poker to the media.”

He’s not blaming the reporters for reporting on poker tournaments the same way over and over and over again (although he could have), but rather is finding fault in the game itself for failing to generate anything innovative -- at least since those earliest stories of players becoming millionaires in tourneys lost their novelty.

Reback ends his article expressing considerable apathy about the Global Poker Masters, idly speculating about which team might be a favorite, then adding “That is, if I even bother to watch, which, given my current lack of enthusiasm, seems highly unlikely.” Meanwhile Dreyfus concludes with references to the enthusiasm of the players who have committed and that of the GPI and its partners in the project.

The event is obviously more of an exhibition than anything, and while it will likely showcase some skillful poker being played it won’t be nearly the demonstration of talent we saw at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure earlier in the month. (See my interview with Jesse May at the PCA for more on that topic.) But I’m definitely more intrigued to see how it plays out than is Reback, as well as to see what kinds of stories the event produces and whether or not they are more interesting than the usual poker narratives.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

What Did They Know, and When Did They Know It?

“Quarterback says he ‘didn’t alter the ball’?”

So said Vera to me a short while ago, reading in a questioning tone a headline appearing on the CNN website this evening. (I’d give the link, but I’m kind of loathing the new design at CNN, never mind the autoplaying Esurance commercial. Oh, and the sensationalized, SEO-driven, tabloid-y approach to reporting news.)

Vera isn’t a huge sports fan, and so hasn’t really been following the story of the 11 deflated footballs used by the New England Patriots during the first half of their drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts in last Sunday’s AFC Championship game -- a story that picked up renewed vigor today after the press conferences of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

I’m not going to rehearse all of the details of the story here. If you’re like Vera and haven’t heard all about it yet, it’s easy enough to read further online. And if you’re like me and have, well, then you don’t need a summary.

I’ve been having some fun this week tweeting various comparisons between the situation -- predictably dubbed “Deflate-gate” -- and Watergate, given how both involve allegations of cheating against heavily favored entities with histories of “dirty tricks.” And with today’s twin denials of knowledge by Belichick and Brady and the relentless nature of the continued questioning and swirling suspicion, the idea of some kind of “cover up” is now in play as well to further the analogy.

“I had no knowledge whatsoever of this situation until Monday morning,” said Belichick. “I have no knowledge of anything... I have no knowledge of any wrongdoing,” added Brady. Statements that the chorus of doubters responding afterwards -- some especially indignant -- don’t seem ready to accept.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the “integrity of the game” being threatened by the episode (again, not unlike the integrity of the electoral process back in ’72). Even if New England trounced Indy 45-7 (like Nixon trounced McGovern 520 to 17), thereby making any ball-altering shenanigans seem less meaningful from a results-oriented perspective, it surely isn’t fair for one side to run its offense with balls inflated more favorably (i.e., well under the league-determined level) than the other, right?

To draw a poker analogy, it sounds a little like someone playing the first half of a heads-up cash game session knowing there were only three aces in the deck. Sure, both are playing with the same deck, but one has more accurate knowledge about that deck than the other. Depending on how the other 51 cards were dealt, it could matter greatly or not at all.

With today’s pressers the story has moved from the sports pages onto CNN and other news sites, with non-football fans like Vera now asking football fans like me what the deal is with the Super Bowl-bound QB denying cheating allegations. Brady didn’t say “I’m not a crook” today, although he did have to respond to the question (posed somewhat within a hypothetical) “Is Tom Brady a cheater?” with the statement “I feel like I’ve always played within the rules.”

I’m no great fan of the Pats or Belichick or Brady -- my ambivalence towards N.E. tracing back to their dramatic last-second Super Bowl win over my Panthers over a decade ago -- which means I’m kinda sorta enjoying all the nonsense on a certain anarchy-loving level only available to those of us on the sidelines without a specific rooting interest.

But I also think that unlike Watergate, there’s not much to this silly sideshow at all. My answer to Vera’s question, then, wasn’t really an answer.

“It’s all anyone’s talking about right now,” I said to her, shaking my head. And then we talked about something else.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Playing Cepheus

A short follow-up regarding Cepheus, the heads-up fixed-limit hold’em playing program developed by the Computer Poker Research Group at the University of Alberta I was writing about yesterday -- i.e., the program that is said to have essentially “solved” heads-up LHE insofar as (the researchers claim) “a human lifetime of play is not sufficient to establish with statistical significance that the strategy [employed by Cepheus] is not an exact solution.”

I mentioned how they’ve put Cepheus online for the curious to play against. Today after queueing up for a long time I managed to get a game against the program. We played 100 hands of 10/20 LHE, after which I managed to finish up 105 units -- just about five big bets.

I ran hot early on, so hot it almost seemed like things were rigged in my favor as I built up a lead of over 250 through the first 30 hands. Then things evened out between us and after 49 hands we were dead even, and for a hand or two after that I was down briefly. But I won three big pots in a row to zoom back up over 200, and ultimately never lost the lead again.

I played tight-aggressive throughout, becoming a little more conservative during the last dozen hands or so as I wanted to preserve my lead. Both Cepheus and I were mindful of position, with Cepheus raising almost every single button and folding otherwise (i.e., never limping). Meanwhile I also mostly raised or folded my buttons (folding more than Cepheus did), though I limped occasionally, too.

Cepheus would three-bet me fairly often before the flop when I did raise, and probably bet when checked to around 80-90% of the time (I don’t have a log of the hand histories, so can’t say for sure). After about 75 hands I had just begun to become aware of the fact that Cepheus hadn’t seemed to have check-raised me on either the turn or river, then the program did it twice within just a few hands, both times successfully earning extra bets as a result.

In the first case I was playing from the button with K-7-offsuit with the king of clubs, and the flop had come all clubs with the ace to give me a nut flush draw. Cepheus check-called me there, then a king fell on the turn and that’s where Cepheus check-raised me. The river was a blank, and Cepheus won the hand with K-Q.

The second instance also involved Cepheus connecting on the turn -- that’s a screenshot of that hand above (click to enlarge). I also managed to check-raise a couple of turns after making hands to get extra value.

Obviously the tiny sample established practically nothing regarding either Cepheus or myself. I will admit that toward the latter part of the session I felt my attention flag just a touch, enough to remind me of the difference between myself and my non-human competitor. If we’d gone on, say, to play 1,000 hands or more I imagine it would have been very difficult for me to continue to make correct decisions (not that all of the ones I made were correct).

If you happen to play Cepheus, let me know how it goes and what impressions you get from the program.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cepheus and the “Solving” of Heads-Up LHE

Yesterday I was writing about the “New York Times 4th Down Bot” and related efforts by those studying stats to present math-based models for dictating how best to coach a football game. There was a related story last week regarding the team of researchers at the University of Alberta who have been working for several years on “solving” heads-up fixed-limit hold’em, with their new study published in the January 2015 issue of the journal Science “announc[ing] that heads-up limit Texas hold’em is now essentially weakly solved.”

I remember many years ago -- way back in the summer of 2007 -- speaking with Jonathan Schaeffer of the University of Alberta about Polaris, the computer program developed by his team of researchers that comprised the university’s Computer Poker Research Group (CPRG) in the dept. of Computing Science which he chaired. An LHE match between Polaris and two pros, Phil Laak and Ali Eslami, took place that summer in which the humans won, and for PokerNews I spoke to Schaeffer about Polaris and the CPRG’s goals.

“One of these days -- within 5 to 10 years -- two-person, limit hold’em will be solved,” he said to me. Here we are about seven-and-a-half years later, and it sounds like those continuing the work there at Alberta have fulfilled Schaeffer’s prediction.

The new heads-up LHE-playing program is called Cepheus and is in fact available to play against online, although when I went to the site there were “too many in queue” and I was invited to come back later to try.

With my academic affiliation I have been able to get a copy of the Science study and have read through it. Simply titled “Heads-up limit hold'em poker is solved,” it begins by pointing out that while certain “perfect-information” games like Connect Four and checkers have been solved, others like chess have not even if much-celebrated events like Deep Blue’s victory over Garry Kasparov has led some to suggest it has. “Defeating top human players is not the same as ‘solving’ a game,” the study’s four authors point out.

The study then notes how only “perfect-information” games have been solved thus far, making their claim regarding the “imperfect-information” game of heads-up limit hold’em groundbreaking. Reference is made to the work of game theory pioneer John von Neumann and the element of bluffing that distinguishes poker, to Michael Craig’s The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King (which details the high-stakes LHE games between by Andy Beal and “the Corporation”), as well as to the previous work of Schaeffer and his team at Alberta.

An explanation of what it means to “solve” a game follows, with the distinction “weakly solved” referring to a game in which “for the initial position(s), a strategy has been determined to obtain at least the game-theoretic value, for both players, under reasonable resources.” From that definition, the researches extrapolate that as far as heads-up LHE goes, it is safe to say that the game is “essentially weakly solved... if a human lifetime of play is not sufficient to establish with statistical significance that the strategy is not an exact solution.”

From there comes further refinement of what is meant by an “imperfect-information game” then an explanation of the programming of Cepheus and the “solution” ultimately found. This admittedly is where your humble scribbler feels especially humbled, not being versed in the various fields of the researchers.

Back in 2007 there was already lots of talk about “poker bots” and online poker, so I had to ask Schaeffer about Polaris and how it might relate to the online game. “I want to be clear,” he told me. “We do not play online poker. None of our software is enabled to play online poker on any of the sites.”

Nor has being able to “solve” heads-up limit hold’em ever been the endgame for the researchers at Alberta. They conclude their study by noting how “the breakthroughs behind our result are general algorithmic advances that make game-theoretic reasoning in large-scale models of any sort more tractable.” In other words, as often gets pointed out by those who study game theory as it applies to recreational games or sports, the findings there have value in other realms involving human decision-making.

As a longtime fan of LHE, I’m curious to learn more about Cepheus, including how it was created and what it can do. If you are also curious, here’s a good piece on the FiveThirtyEight site summarizing the team’s work and placing it in a broader context by Oliver Roeder called “Computers Are Learning How to Treat Illnesses By Playing Poker and Atari.” And I’m about to go listen to the latest episode of the Thinking Poker podcast on which Andrew Brokos had on as guests two of the study’s authors, Michael Bowling and Michael Johanson of the CPRG at Alberta, to talk about Cepheus.

In the meantime I’m going to keep queueing up to try to play Cepheus. Last night Vanessa Selbst was on PokerStars playing at some some 8-game play money tables, and I actually sat at one for a few orbits. Feeling equally intimidated to sit across from Cepheus, I think.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Go For It or Take the Points?

Was captivated like most yesterday by that Packers-Seahawks NFC Championship tilt which ended so crazily with several unlikely plays going Seattle’s way to earn them the comeback and eventual victory.

If you saw the game, you know the plays to which I’m referring, the fake field goal TD, the Hail Mary two-point conversion, and the muff-and-recovery of the onside kick the most vivid of the among them. Those two instances of Green Bay choosing to kick field goals rather than go for it on short fourth-and-goal situations early on also loomed large throughout the day.

Regarding the latter, check out “The New York Times Fourth Down Bot” and its page assessing all of the fourth down decisions made in that GB-SEA game. Applying statistical-based findings about how such calls affect win probabilities, the NYT 4th Down Bot offers judgments on all fourth down decisions as games are being played. The obvious poker-related analogy would be to an online poker player’s “HUD” (Heads-Up Display) offering real-time stats that can be interpreted to help a player make plus-EV decisions on the fly.

As explained here, those findings generally recommend going for it on fourth down much more frequently than most coaches actually choose to do so. Of course, the NYT 4th Down Bot -- like all Monday morning quarterbacks -- can opine at will from the sidelines, not having to face the real-life consequences coaches do when making decisions.

Green Bay’s unwillingness to go for those two first-quarter fourth-and-shorts certainly seemed overly conservative at the time, especially when playing on the road in a do-or-die game versus such a heavy favorite. Not too surprisingly, the NYT 4th Down Bot recommended going for it in both cases yesterday.

Almost every other fourth down decision made yesterday was judged a “Good call!” by the NYT 4th Down Bot. A couple weren’t so cut-and-dry, with the judgments for those being “It’s complicated” and “Too close to call.” Only one other fourth down decision -- also by Green Bay -- was considered incorrect by the Bot, the one at the very end when the Packers punted with four minutes to go when facing fourth-and-14 on their own 39.

That one seems less obvious on the surface, but the explanation suggests the lateness of the decision, being up by 12, and other factors make it so that “teams who go for it would win about 2% more often than teams who punt.” As it happened, GB only gained 30 yards of field position on the play, and it would take Seattle just two quick plays to more than make that yardage back.

I’ve written here before about how I occasionally like looking at these mathematical models that crunch the numbers from thousands of games to give instantaneous interpretations of win probability. The graph from that GB-SEA game was especially wacky, as plotted by Advanced Football Analytics (see left). Green Bay was sailing along at at WP of 80% or above from the late first quarter onwards, peaking at 98% with 3:07 left and then suddenly plunging down to just 14% with 1:33 to go (after Seattle grabbed the lead). Things evened out after the game was tied and went to OT, but Seattle wasn’t challenged thereafter.

Today I was listening to sports talk radio and hearing an ex-player (who years ago also lost a heartbreaking conference championship game to miss a Super Bowl opportunity) talking about how losing hurts much more than winning feels good, another idea with which most poker players are familiar. Interestingly, that same player was also defending Green Bay’s decisions to kick those first-quarter field goals and “take the points.”

I think the first of these ideas -- that losing or failing hurts more than winning or succeeding feels good -- is not unrelated to the second one encouraging the avoidance of risk and acceptance of small victories over the prospect of having to endure what are perceived to be large losses. In any case, as fascinating as the numbers can be, humans and their capacity to be non-rational -- or not bots -- with their decisions are even more so.

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