Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Hilarious Haralabos

Was catching up on some podcasts and finally got to the most recent set of shows from CardPlayer's The Circuit (from the 2006 Mirage Poker Showdown). Of the poker podcasts that focus on the pros, I enjoy The Circuit the most, primarily because its hosts (Scott Huff, Gavin Smith, and Joe Sebok) are all very likable, witty, and knowledgeable about poker. Smith and Sebok also routinely avoid the sort of belittling commentary some pros offer whenever asked to comment on low limit games.

If you haven't heard it already, check out the show from Day 3 at the Mirage, particularly the second half when they interview Haralabos Voulgaris. The Canadian part-time tourney player's explanation of his career as a sports bettor is interesting enough, but his account of his much-publicized run-in with Freddy Deeb at the WPT Championship is priceless. As Sebok says at one point -- I paraphrase -- this is some of the funniest shinola I've ever heard (on a poker podcast, at least). The bit about the waitress with oversized hands is up there as well. I suppose some (e.g., Freddy Deeb fans) think Voulgaris an ass, but this’ll have you cryin’ regardless.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

The Big Slick Assumption

The Big Slick AssumptionHad a goofy hand yesterday swimming with the fishes in a game of $0.50/$1.00 6-handed limit over on Party. The kind of thing one sees fairly regularly in that particular aquarium, actually. The hand itself doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of life lessons, but it did get me thinking a bit about how certain players -- chiefly inexperienced ones -- tend to interpret preflop raises in limit.

We had two empty seats at the time, actually, so there were only four of us for this particular hand. I was on the button where I was dealt Ac Kc. UTG folded, I raised, the SB folded, and the BB called. So far so what. The flop comes 7c Jh Tc and the SB open bets. Looking at the nut flush draw, a gutshot draw, and two overcards (a whopping 18 outs, potentially), I decide to raise. The SB reraises, quickly erasing from my mind the 4 outs represented by the non-club aces or kings. Still, I figure I’m close to 50-50 here even if my friend has 98 and has flopped a straight, and so I decide to cap it. (Checking later on CardPlayer’s Texas Hold ‘em Calculator, I see I’m 47% to win if my opponent indeed has 98 and no clubs.)

I’ll make this play occasionally with a strong draw and position with the hope of misleading my opponent into thinking I already have a made hand and am protecting. The SB calls, of course, and there is $6.25 in the pot when the Qc charmingly falls on the turn, giving me my nut flush.

My initial response to seeing the queen was mixed. After all, if my opponent only has a pair (the most likely hand), the queen should scare him or her away. My mood changed quickly, however, when my opponent again open bet. Must really have the 98, I think gleefully as I raise, am reraised, and then cap again. The pot is up to $14.25 when the river brings the Ks. Finally my opponent slows down and checks. I bet, s/he calls, and I collared $15.50 (minus the rake), netting 7.5 BB all told.

What did my opponent have? 10d 5c. I jive you not. Either s/he was completely wet behind the ears (a definite possibility), or perhaps believed on the turn that even if those crummy tens were no longer good there was the possibility of a fourth club and a hand-winning flush on the river. Hey, it could happen. And NBA refs’ll start calling travelling once we get to the finals.

Showdown Surprise

The hand made me think of how when I first started playing limit I would routinely put preflop raisers on AK. Only after a few months of disillusionment did I realize how damaging to one’s stack such reflexive “putting-on-a-hand” can be. The Big Slick Assumption is directly consequent to wishful thinking about one’s pocket pair or the pair one flops after calling the preraise. You’ve seen it, I know. It’s heads-up after the preraise, the board shows no A or K, and the preflop caller commences to duel with the raiser. As I said, I’ve been guilty, too (though hopefully less often now than when I first began playing).

The hand seemed remarkable to me precisely because my opponent appeared not to have made the Big Slick Assumption (acting utterly unfazed with QJT on board). Perhaps s/he has yet even to reach that stage of development as a player, not yet ready to make reads or assumptions at all. In any event, while the hand itself was hardly special, it did remind me of at least two truths for microlimit play: (1) When you’ve hit your hand, bet bet bet (avoid slow-playing, check-raising, or other examples of “Fancy Play Syndrome” as Mike Caro puts it). (2) Don’t let the Big Slick Assumption talk you into thinking your bottom pair is going to be enough to beat the preflop raiser. Especially if he raises you on the turn.

Image (top): “The Thinker” (1902), Auguste Rodin (adapted), public domain.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Flights of Fancy

Paradise (So-Called)Took a trip to Hawaii a couple of weeks ago. Strictly business, of course. (Incidentally discovered after my return that Hawaii is one of two states in the union where all forms of gambling are outlawed.) Stayed on O’ahu, near Honolulu, and from a 13th (called 14th) floor corner room enjoyed madly grandiose views of Diamond Head brooding to the left and those intensely bluish-turquoise waters off Waikiki Beach to the right.

Mainlanders who’ve never been instinctively consider Hawaii an earthly paradise, though those who have know that while it has much to offer it isn’t quite that. Now this ain’t no travel guide, so I won’t go into the all the whys and how-comes. We’ll just say of the 50th state that it’s plenty nice but not quite the cat’s pajamas. More JJ or AQ-off than aces or kings.

I connected in Chicago, and from there the flight was about eight-and-a-half hours long, so I took the opportunity finally to read James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street. I already knew the rough outline of McManus’s story. How he’d gone to Vegas in the spring of 2000 primarily to cover the trial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, the pair accused of murdering Ted Binion (son of Benny), and how he ended up playing in the WSOP main event while there and finishing a remarkable 5th out of 512 entrants.

Even with such foreknowledge of the book’s two main plots, I found Positively Fifth Street a great read. It’s a page-turner, sure, but it also is more than a little insightful about some of the normally hard-to-explain aspects of human psychology (e.g., our need to take risks, to be “bad,” etc.), about the importance of family, and, yes, even about poker.

Positively Fifth Street by James McManusI was a little surprised (and impressed, actually) that McManus ultimately doesn’t make too much of his accomplishment. One almost gathers that despite his frequent admissions of self-doubt, he expected to do well -- even to win the damn thing (which probably partly explains his getting so far). Most enjoyable are the digressive historical bits (e.g., about the Binions and the Horseshoe, the history of poker and the WSOP, overviews of famous poker books, stories about McManus’s family).

The recounting of particular hands is also fairly gripping. And there are some humorous moments, such as when McManus encounters the main event’s eventual winner Chris “Jesus” Ferguson in the men’s room and tells him how even though he’s trying to play conservatively, he can’t stop his right hand from firing chips. Ferguson understands completely, and “suddenly spooky-voiced, strobing his bony fingers toward [McManus’s] face in psychedelic fashion” says to McManus it’s “‘Almost as though . . . you’ve been hyp-no-tized . . . [!]’”

The WSOP main event is poker players’ Hawaii. Even us micronauts are constantly scheming to win our way to this apparent paradise. McManus’s book does little to dissuade us of that notion; indeed, it likely reinforces it. Like Hawaii, no matter how much we read or hear about it (good or bad), we all want to see it for ourselves.

Images: WSOP logo, Hawaii (adapted) (top); Positively Fifth Street (2003), James McManus (bottom).

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Friday, May 26, 2006

Killer Poker, or Knowing What Counts

Pop. 1280 by Jim ThompsonFrom 1942 until the early ’70s, Jim Thompson wrote about thirty novels of the “hard-boiled” variety, all crime stories involving nefarious, morally-bankrupt characters engaged in a wide range of vice and mayhem.

Some sold reasonably well, but with a few exceptions nearly all were dismissed by critics as disposable “pulp.” None of his novels were in print at the time of his death in 1977. However, his stature (and critical reputation) soon grew when Vintage Crime/Black Lizard began reissuing several of his novels in the late ’80s.

Furthering his posthumous fame were film adaptations of several of his novels, including The Getaway (the 1972 version by Sam Peckinpah with Steve McQueen; skip the 1994 one), The Killer Inside Me (1976), The Kill-Off (1989), After Dark, My Sweet (1990), and The Grifters (1990).

Jim Thompson was a hell of a writer -- to paraphrase the title of one of his novels (A Hell of a Woman, also filmed as Série noire) -- and easily my favorite among the second generation of hard-boiled fiction writers who followed Hammett and Chandler. My favorite Thompson novel is probably Pop. 1280. It’s certainly the one I’ve read the most. It seems like at least once a year I pick it up and am again hooked by the first few pages in which the hilariously unreliable narrator and protagonist, Nick Corey, introduces himself.

I found myself thinking of Nick Corey and Pop. 1280 the other day while engaged in a 6-handed $0.50/$1.00 limit ring game. I had just gotten to the table, and so didn’t really have a read on any of the other players when I noticed the player who lost the most recent showdown enigmatically type “J3 K5” in the chat box. Checking the hand histories, I saw that the player to his right had won the last two hands with these holdings (Js 3s and Kh 5d), having hit a second pair both times to suck out on the complainer. As the cards were being dealt for the next hand, he added “u dont need good cards.”

Now I’ve been suckered in by this sort of thing in the past, taking one player’s word for another player’s lack of skill and thereby gravely underestimating an opponent to my own detriment. So rather than draw any hasty conclusions, I reserved judgment and watched the complainer (whom I’ll call Bellyache) begin to challenge the alleged donk (whom I’ll call The Fool).

Within about 20-30 hands, The Fool was up $15 and Bellyache was down about $7. (Looking back at the session later on Poker Tracker, I found The Fool ultimately made a cool $23.50 while Bellyache lost $6.75.) The two had been involved in numerous showdowns versus one another.

To give you an example, in one hand five of us had limped in to see a flop of 6h 3c 8c. The Fool checked from the small blind and Bellyache bet out from the BB. The table all called (including me on the button with Ad 9h), then The Fool check-raised. Bellyache called, as did one other player besides myself. The pot was $7.00 when the turn brought the Qs. The Fool bet out, Bellyache called, and the other player and I both folded. The river was the 5s, and again The Fool bet and Bellyache called. The Fool had 8h 6c, and so took down a nice pot of $10.50 after flopping top two pair. Bellyache had Js 3s, and with only bottom pair and no draw had open bet, called a check-raise, and called two more big bets.

The Fool had played the hand well, and clearly was benefitting from the fact that Bellyache refused to believe he or she could know how to check-raise a strong hand. Indeed, on that particular hand, the calls around the table of The Fool’s check-raise were probably also partially a result of Bellyache’s diagnosis that The Fool was a bad player.

This manner of playing upon others’ misreads is precisely how Nick Corey gets things done in Pop. 1280. As high sheriff of Potts County, Nick is constantly abused by others who disrespect his authority. One soon discovers, however, that Nick has a lot more going on upstairs than anyone else seems to realize, and in fact encourages others to underestimate him so as to be able to take advantage later on.

Early in the novel Nick goes to visit Ken Lacey, the sheriff of a neighboring county, with the apparent purpose of asking his advice regarding how best to handle a couple of pimps who are running a whorehouse and who don’t seem to care that Nick wants them to shut it down. He describes the neighboring town to the reader in awe-struck terms (“It was a real big place -- probably four, five thousand people”). He’s even impressed by the dogs in this town, including one “mongrel [who] would have made a fella stop and stare. Because I’m tellin’ you, he was really something! He had this high ass in the back, all spotted and speckled like a cow had farted bran on him . . . .” (This book is hi-friggin’-larious, I’m telling you.)

He continues the bumpkin-in-the-city routine with Lacey and his deputy, and they promptly make fun of him, at one point literally kicking him in the ass in order to give him “an ill-ustrated lesson” of "pre-zackly" what he needs to do to the pimps. Later on we discover Nick has hooked Lacey into a scam whereby Nick kills the pimps and frames Lacey for the murders. Nick describes Lacey’s reaction once he realizes he’s been had: “He blinked at me. Then the wild sweat broke out on his face again, and a streak of spit oozed from the corner of his mouth. And there was fear in his eyes. It had soaked in on him at last, the spot he was in.” Chilling.

The novel proceeds with further examples of such deceit. Near the end, Rose (one of Nick’s mistresses) challenges him to take responsibility for his actions. “Who planned those murders?” she asks. “Who tells a lie every time he draws a breath? Who the hell is it that’s been fornicating with me, and God knows how many others?” “Oh, well,” Nick answers. “It don’t count when I do those things.” “It don’t count!” she fires back. “What the hell do you mean?”

Here’s where I think Nick might be read as demonstrating the characteristics of one kind of successful poker player. Having tricked his enemies into underestimating him, he crushes them mercilessly, and, importantly, feels absolutely no remorse for having done so. The way Nick sees it, all of his actions are simply part of his job:

It’s what I’m supposed to do, you know, to punish the heck out of people for bein’ people. To coax ’em into revealin’ theirselves, an’ then kick the crap out of ’em. And it’s a god-danged hard job, Rose, honey, and I figure that if I can get a little pleasure in the process of trappin’ folks I’m mighty well entitled to it.
The Fool might well have felt something similar about Bellyache and the rest of the table while gathering our chips. When it comes down to it, who gives rip what your opponents think of you? And if they think less of you than they should, all the better. As Nick would say, that stuff don’t count nohow.

Image: Pop. 1280 (1964), Jim Thompson.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Staying Live

In one of those WSOP freerolls yesterday. All the sites got ’em. No spinach to enter (just frequent player points). This one saw nearly 400 entrants, with just the top three getting a spot in a weekend satellite (from which the top two go to Vegas). Ended up tilting with the other Quixotes for nearly a couple of hours before busting out around 60th.

My play was passable for 100 hands or so, although I wouldn’t rate it too special. Truly it had been more serendipity than savvy that had me where I was (sitting around 40th with 7500 chips or so w/60-70 players left). I’d doubled through once early with aces vs. kings. Happened upon quads another time, winning a decent pot. Then I get rubbed out but fast, the last hand being not a little disgraceful for your humble servant.

After having folded a couple of rounds’ worth I finally find myself with 9c9hin late position. The blinds were 100/200. The UTG made a min. raise to 400 and it folded around to me. I thought about the reraise, then decided to play it safe and smooth call. The remaining players all folded, and the flop came 5d4s4c. The UTG promptly made a healthy bet of 1200 chips (just over the size of the pot). With absolutely no evidence to support the theory that he was making some sort of play with overcards, I somehow surmised he was and put in 3000, effectively committing myself to the pot. Having me well-covered, he reraised all-in and I made my second (or third) error of the hand and called to see his JdJs. There were no undeserved miracles on the turn or river, and it was the bum’s rush for me.

As the experts (and even the not-so-expert) frequently point out, calling off one’s last chips is nearly always a bad idea, particularly when there is no pressing need to do so. But there it is. Not looking for excuses here, but it has been a few months since I regularly played tourneys. Finding (like a lot of folks, I gather) that ring games provide a steadier stream of scratch, it has been some time since I’ve played more than a couple in a week. I had some success a few months back, making some final tables in tourneys roughly the size of the one I was in yesterday. (My best finish was 2nd of 390 in a $1 PL tourney, netting $58 for 4-5 hours’ effort.) Looking back, I realize now that those triumphs were mainly the result of a combination of stone-cold patience, a few decent decisions here and there, and a hell of a lot of luck.

When I play tourneys now I occasionally will find myself struggling to “stay live” at the table. Absent some premium hands early on, I tend to keep my head well inside the shell for the first couple of levels, with the lack of action usually inducing an undesirable lethargy I must consciously fight against when I’m eventually compelled to play. There are at least a couple of negative consequences of sitting out multiple orbits in a tourney. One is how folding 15-20 hands tends to skew your idea of a playable hand. It’s something like how a couple of months alone suddenly makes you wonder on a Friday afternoon what the frumpy receptionist with the twitchy eye is doing come punch-out time. (Thus did those nines look a little too shapely to me, I fear.) Even worse, the rest of the table stops worrying about you. You no longer rate their concern, quickly becoming an easy mark who’s getting easier with each hand.

By “staying live” I don’t refer simply to continuing to pay attention to the proceedings. Rather, I mean making the conscious effort to belong at the table . . . to be a part of the game (even if you aren’t in a particular hand) and to ensure that others around the table know that you’re there and may well be vying for their chips at any moment. In ring games it is also preferable to remain “live” as much as possible -- most particularly in no limit games -- though hardly as vital as when you're merrily gliding down the progressively steeper slope of a tournament.

So avoid Shamus’s shame and try always to stay live. Or become dead money.

Photo: “EKG - Electrocardiogram,” public domain.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

How To Survive If Your Parachute Fails to Open

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival HandbookI’m in an online ring game of $.50/$1.00 limit hold ’em. A loose cat limps in early position. Rest of the table folds to me sitting right of the cutoff and I see a pair of ladies looking back. I put in the raise. The cutoff and button both fold. The small blind waits a beat and reraises. Big blind folds. Limper calls. I think about it for a moment then decide just to call and see the flop. Capping ain’t chasin’ anyone and I have position, so I say let’s just buckle up and see what’s what. The pot is an even $5.00.

The out-of-sync rhythm of the small blind’s reraise (combined with earlier info gleaned from playing a few dozen hands with him) adds up to big slick or maybe a pair of hooks. He could have the bullets or cowboys, sure, but something tells me he ain’t got it quite that good. The limper? Could have anything at all.

Flop comes a sweet QT7 rainbow. Both of my opponents check. I bet, the small blind calls, and the limper decides he’ll put his spoon in the dish as well. The pot is now $6.50. As I silently mouth the words “no jack” the turn comes a J. Again, both opponents check. Now what?

How often does this happen? You make a read with confidence, a sequence of events unfolds from which you may potentially benefit from that read, and yet you act otherwise? There I was in the cutoff with my no-longer-pretty set of queens and a feeling of utter certainty that I was up against an opponent slow-playing his straight.

What did I do?

I bet, of course. (“Jingle-brained” ain’t exactly a compliment, if you were wondering.) I cringe as the small blind (inevitably, it seemed) check-raises. Then the madman limper on the other side of the table surprisingly three-bets. What? Has he plugged a gutshot as well (holding K9)? Or maybe he has 98? Criminy.

Do I give up my set? I do potentially have 10 outs here that help me beat a straight (the case queen, three jacks, three tens, and three sevens) -- about 3.5-to-1 against. I’m now looking at a pot of $12.50. It’s $2.00 to call, although I’m a victim of the “sandwich effect” (as Harrington puts it) and so likely it’s gonna cost me another buck to stay in after the small blind caps. That means I’m looking at putting in a total of $3.00 for a shot at $15.50, so the actual pot odds are going to be a little better than 5-to-1.

So math is telling me to stick around. To be honest, I ain’t listening too much to math here. I flopped top set, dammit, and now I’m gonna bust that lucky palooka with the horseshoe up his ass. (After I get lucky and fill up on the river, that is . . . .) So I call (and call) and we have a pot of $18.50 when the river brings a lousy 4.

Poof. Where the hell did I put my Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook?

The small blind bets. The limper raises. The pot has grown to a ridiculous $21.50. Practically a small field of cabbage for these stakes. If I fold, I’ve lost a total of $6.00 on this hand. If I make two (or even three) more crying calls as the final round of betting gets capped, I’ll have put in $10.00 altogether. I could calculate pot odds once more and perhaps rationalize that somehow I’m still good here -- or even that I’ve got a 10% shot of being good and so should keep calling -- but that would be strictly non compos mentis. I sigh and let it go. My two friends cap it and it turns out they’re a regular chopper squad with both of ’em holding big slick.

Short-Stacked's parachute fails to open. (Click to enlarge)

Now there might have been ways I could have lost less on this hand, though I’m not bright enough to see them. Seems more like a cold deck to me, but if anyone has any ideas, I’m all ears. If I were a look-on-the-bright-side type, I might say I “made” $4.00 by folding on the river. (As Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth would put it, folding made my "expectation for the entire hand less negative than the alternatives.") I don’t order my eggs sunny-side up, though. Strictly hard-boiled around here . . . .

Images: The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook (1999), Joshua Piven, David Borgenicht (top); PokerStars screenshot (adapted) (bottom).

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Know Thy Own Friggin' Self

In Joyce Carol Oates’s 1995 essay titled “I, the Juror” (a play, of course, on the title of Mickey Spillane’s first Mike Hammer novel), Oates recounts her first time serving jury duty. If you can track the essay down, I recommend it -- Oates really hits on all eight throughout. In her particular trial, race emerged as an issue that most dramatically demonstrated to her the difficulty of judging others. That there is the meat of this post, trying to get at what makes judging others such a hard nut to crack.

The case involved a black defendant and black witnesses, while the jury was mostly white. Oates expresses dismay at how the white jurors seemed unaffected by the case, as if they couldn’t hope to identify with any of those involved and (therefore) couldn’t take the case as seriously as one would hope. Oates makes good points about race and the legal system, although Oates also makes a broader, more philosophical point toward the end of the essay when she says “In judging others, the burden is ours to transcend the limits of self.”

While Oates here speaks primarily of race (and how it tends to limit our perspective when judging others), I think her point can be applied more broadly to any situation when one is evaluating another’s actions. Indeed, when judging others, one of the greatest challenges is to get out of your own damn way . . . that is, to try not to compare others to oneself.

It goes without saying that much of poker involves judging others. While certain sequences suggest certain hands, knowing something about how an oppponent plays (e.g., starting hand requirements, his tendency to slow play, his willingness to bluff, etc.) goes a long way toward helping you decide how to play back. This business of (as Sklansky puts it in The Theory of Poker) “getting into your opponents’ heads, analyzing how they think, figuring out what they think you think, and even determining what they think you think they think” has a hell of a lot to do with one’s success at the table.

In practice, there exists for all of us a serious, difficult-to-overcome obstacle to “getting into your opponents’ heads,” namely, what is going on inside our own heads. Let’s say you’ve been sitting at a low stakes limit table for a good while and have played 100 hands with the person sitting to your left. Early on he established himself as someone willing to play just about any two cards. He also tends to showdown almost every hand in which he is involved. He’s demonstrated a few other, less obvious patterns as well, such as never check-raising, always betting out with top pair (regardless of his kicker), and even a few times check-calling on the river when holding less than the nuts.

Now we can all gander at our hypothetical cat and break him down according to what we might agree are “objective” criteria. We might even agree how we ultimately want to categorize him (as “loose-passive,” a “jackal,” or what have you). However, in practice, how (let’s say) you would evaluate him is largely affected -- sometimes in a negative way that obscures rather than clarifies -- by what kind of player you are. If you are also loose with your starting hand requirements, you may be less apt to evaluate his requirements as a bunch of damnfoolery. If you never check-raise, having determined it to be a play that at low limit tables ultimately has a negative EV, then your judgment of this particular opponent’s neglect of the check-raise would also be affected. And so forth.

I suppose the lesson here is that before one can truly evaluate other players, one needs to understand more about one’s own game. We need to know what our own tendencies and preferences are (and why we have those tendencies and preferences) and then try, if possible, to “transcend the limits of self” when assessing others. This may well be one of the most difficult tasks in poker, that is, to learn how to judge others without letting our own example determine what is “correct” and what is not. We shouldn’t be surprised that the world is full of people unlike ourselves, yet in many situations (including sitting around a poker table) we nevertheless are. Constantly.

Such was Socrates’ point, I guess. Know thyself before presuming to know others. Also (argues Socrates), knowing who you are helps you become the best person you can be. By the same token, knowing precisely what kind of poker player you are will make you a better judge of others’ play, and thus, the best player you can be.

Image: I, the Jury (1947), Mickey Spillane.

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Folding AA: A 12-Step Program

Folding AA: A 12-Step ProgramLast summer I found myself walking through the MGM Grand (a rare excursion for yours truly into brick-and-morter land) when a sharp-eyed gentleman in a white shirt and striped tie thrust a glossy pamphlet in my hand and quickly shuffled away.

The little rectangular tome was titled "Folding AA: A 12-Step Program." Can't say I thought about it much until the other week when I numbskulled my way to having my aces cracked by a backdoor straight. Took awhile but I finally found it under a pile of papers. I'll skip the preamble and get to the skinny. Here are the 12 steps:

1. Admitted that you have become powerless not to fold AA. Came to realize that all of your better instincts -- the fruits of countless hours of study and play -- are hopelessly undermined whenever you are dealt pocket rockets. In other words, your game becomes unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that the poker gods -- powers greater than yourself -- can restore you to sanity. The poker gods have determined the order of the poker universe, which includes, for example, the unalterable truth that if played to the river 65-suited will crack aces over 20% of the time, even when one of your aces is the same suit. Have accepted you cannot change that fact, nor should you question it, if you wish to keep your marbles (and chips).

3. Made the decision to turn your will over to the care of the poker gods (as far as you are able to understand them). Have recognized they have determined flops like J-10-9 suited generally are not friendly to AA and that folding to a reraise here may well be the right play most of the time. Subsequently appreciated with full awareness how the hold ’em universe has been thoughtfully arranged.

4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of your poker ego, ascertaining precisely when and where you came erroneously to believe folding aces was strictly for Nancy boys. Have comprehended that just because there are 220-to-1 odds against something occurring, when such an event does occur there exist no guarantees about what might happen next.

5. Admitted to the poker gods, to yourself, and to someone else you have a serious problem laying down bullets, even when up against a scary board and multiple opponents. Confessed that while in the past you have concsiously understood that aces are often generally a coin flip at best to win versus three or more, you have been utterly governed by a sense of entitlement when dealt AA, incapable of acting rationally in the face of certain danger.

6. Readied yourself to yield to the poker gods and remove this serious defect from your play. As you have experienced on multiple occasions, hours of intelligent poker can be undermined in a single hand, and while AA has often proven beneficial to you, you have come to understand that by misplaying the hand you have become less of a player than you are capable of being.

7. Humbly asked the poker gods to remove your shortcomings and make you understand that having made your set of aces still does not mean your hand beats a straight, flush, or boat.

8. Made a list of all the times you have misplayed pocket rockets. Not the times you played them correctly and suffered bad beats, but the times you consciously made mistakes calling or raising when you were certain you were beat.

9. Made direct amends to such people who have unfairly cracked your aces in the past and to whom you may have treated less than appropriately with remarks about their ancestry and the like, except when to do so would injure them (by hurting their pride) or others (whose livelihood depends on such donks).

10. Continued to monitor your play and take personal inventory, always noting when you misplay aces and promptly admitting having done so.

11. Sought through reflection and meditation to improve your conscious understanding of probabilities, other players’ tendencies, and your own table image, praying for the ability to act according to such knowledge in all that you do, most particularly in your handling of AA.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in your entire game.

Now that I think of it, the fella who handed it to me might have had a drink in his hand.

Image: Alcholics Anonymous logo (adapted). CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

High Hopes

Had a joker of a friend once named Tony who whenever the subject of pot odds came up at the home game would crack wise about the chances of him scoring a dimebag within the next day or two. Tony could be a kick in the pants sometimes.

After the shenanigans, though, Tony usually had the right answers to others' questions about poker odds, despite being half-snowed half the time. To give you an example, we had a buddy, Dobby, who from time to time would try to argue that when counting outs everyone mistakenly assumes the best-case scenario. Tony knew better, and would invariably respond to such hooey with startling clarity. Here's how Dobby's argument -- one which we all likely have entertained at some (hopefully early) point in our playing lives -- would go.

You count outs to figure your chances to win the hand, then compare them to the odds the pot are giving you. For example, you're in a 10-handed game of $1/$2 limit hold 'em. Everyone folds to you sitting left of cutoff with Qh 9h. You limp, the cutoff folds, the button folds, the SB calls, and the BB checks. There is $6 in the pot when the flop comes Kh 7c 2d. The table checks, then comes the turn, the Ah. The SB bets $2, the BB folds, and now you have to decide whether to chase the nut flush or turn tail.

Now you've had this explained to you a thousand times already. There are 46 unknown cards, 9 of which are hearts. Assuming your opponent just has a pair of kings (or some other hand that can't improve to a full house), if one of those 9 hearts comes, you're a winner. In other words, you're looking at 37-to-9 or a little worse than 4-to-1 against making your flush. The pot is $8 and you have to put in $2 to call, so the pot odds are exactly 4-to-1.

"You're dreaming if you think you really have 9 outs," Dobby would cry. "All 9 ain't left, so if you think you've got 9 ways to win you've got some high hopes."

Technically, the Dobster's right about it being unlikely to have 9 ways to win. Here 24 cards have been dealt (the 10 hands plus the 4 on the board), and so only 28 remain in the deck. On average, only 5 or 6 of those 28 cards will be hearts, with the other 3 or 4 having been dealt and folded. According to Dobby, since we only likely have 5 or 6 winners left, our odds are down (to 8-to-1 or thereabouts). That's where Dobby's line of reasoning goes haywire, of course. You compare the (let's say) 6 hearts left to the 23 other cards left in the deck, not to the total number of other unseen cards (41). Thus the odds remain about 4-to-1; in fact, if 6 hearts are left your odds are slightly better than average here (with about 21.5% of the possible river cards being hearts).

If all 9 hearts are improbably still in the deck, you're about 2-to-1 to hit the flush. If only one is left, you're down to 27-to-1. And if none are left well then you're whistling in the dark like usual.

None of this matters, of course. Unless you're in some kind of bizarro game where all hands are played face up, you have no way of knowing what cards are spent and what cards remain. So note your outs (making sure they really are outs) and the odds of spiking one, figger your pot odds, and make your play.

Or, as Tony would explain with a glassy-eyed twinkle and dismissive shake of the head, "Pass the Doritos."

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Like an Open Book

Everyone knows about the "Hammer" (72 offsuit). However, when 73 offsuit became the hand that won $7.5 million last July, the quickly-anointed “Hachem” emerged as a new favorite for sneaks looking for ways to send opponents tiltward by cracking their premium holdings with obvious trash.

Not too long ago, I was in a game of six-handed limit hold ’em ($0.50/$1) when a mostly-tight player, Archer, opened with a preflop raise from the cutoff. The button and SB folded to me in the BB where I’d been dealt said Hachem. Now I’m a reasonable fellow. Not too bright, mind you, but reasonable. And it was the not-too-bright part that had me hesitating, oddly contemplating putting in the dollar to call.

Now there are a few sad sacks who hate hate hate to give up their blinds, no matter how unreasonable a defense appears to be. Not I, said the fly. I’ll happily donate my cabbage when such obvious weakness warrants doing so. For some reason, though -- perhaps just “to stir things up,” as Hammett’s Op might say -- I broke routine and made the call.

In a December 2005 CardPlayer column on “Defending Blinds,” Matt Matros notes how in heads-up situations such as the one I faced, one can be marginally more liberal with the calls, although one must be cognizant of other factors as well. One does get 3.5-to-1 to call here, with $1.75 already in the pot awaiting my additional $0.50 to make a flop happen. And, as Matros points out, one can virtually guarantee a postflop continuation bet from the raiser, thus, in a sense, making the odds 4.5-to-1. However, as Matros also explains, opening raises from the cutoff generally mean more strength than do button raises. The opponent’s tendencies (as far as one has a line on them) are essential to consider as well.

Of these three pieces of advice, then, only one (the first) could possibly be twisted into something resembling a recommendation to call. In other words, I’d crawled out on this limb all by myself, and yes I was more than vaguely aware what I looked like out there.

But there I was. And there was the flop. A real looker, in fact. Ace-seven-trey, all different suits. I check-raised Archer who after a bewildered pause called. Two more crying calls and I’d scooped an $8 pot when my two pair bested Archer’s ace-queen.

Now the gist of this here parable ain’t to supply the world with yet another example of the cold unfairness of our existence. Nor is it to prove any sort of special prescience at the table for your humble whatever. Rather, the crux of the matter is in what came next, when a suddenly-vocal Archer fumes to no one in particular

Archer: who calls a raise with 7 3?

A reasonable question, to be sure. No one at the table rushed to offer our crestfallen comrade any assistance with his query. So Archer tried again:

Archer: wtf
Archer: u r one lucky FISHHHH
Archer: ****er

And so forth. Within 40-50 hands, Archer’s once handsome stack of $35 had been reduced to $11 when one player after another pushed him off pots and/or showed down two pair, trips, straights, and flushes to his unfortunate run of second-best hands. As for me, I mostly stayed on the sideline, paring my fingernails and whistling, unable to take any real advantage of the new table image I seemed to have created for myself.

Although Archer may well have loosened up his starting hand requirements somewhat (e.g., limping from UTG w/A7o, etc.), I wouldn’t describe his subsequent play as overtly tiltish. And while his temporary slide certainly involved some more bad luck, it nevertheless appeared that everyone at the table had become suddenly able to take advantage, suddenly able to know when to reraise him, when to show down hands against him, when to fold to him. Archer had become an “open book,” so to speak. I wondered if perhaps a principle of poker might be hidden somewhere in the machinations I was witnessing. Something along the lines of


By articulating his frustration at having been called and beaten with 73o, Archer effectively broadcasted to everyone his own tendency to play “by the book” (and, even more significantly, his yearning for others to do the same). Indeed, his complaints communicated this message much more explicitly than did his play in the actual hand, which, if one had paid attention, might well have seemed unorthodox (calling down two more big bets after a check-raise to a board with no obvious draws). Such is a consequence of which “table coaches” don’t always seem aware.

The moral? You should know I don’t go in for morals very much. Let’s just say defend your blind with seven-trey only on special occasions. When heads-up in the WSOP main event, for instance. And think twice before complaining when someone else does.

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