Saturday, September 30, 2006

Deals in the Dead of Night

Congress Card GuardHad a marathon session last night over on Stars. At least by my standards. Was three-tabling it for quite a while, ultimately playing over 1,500 hands (of $0.50/$1.00 LH) before I finally hit the hay. Kind of unusual for me, as I usually prefer only to play a couple hundred hands (or less) during a given session. (Usually do better playing shorter sessions as well.) Did okay, though, ending about $27 to the good. And, as an unexpected surprise, I cleared my WCOOP reload bonus as well (for $100 more), so it was a lucrative evening.

Incidentally, while I was playing I also railed the final table of the WCOOP Event #15 Pot Limit Omaha ($530) in which a Finnish player named Trabelsi outlasted Humberto Brenes (Humberto B.), taking the bracelet and a cool $93,852.75. (There were no deals at this final table.) Listened to the audio broadcast as well with Wil Wheaton and Lee Jones, which was entertaining and informative. Poker Stars is replaying some WCOOP final tables, showing the hole cards of those players who have allowed it. Pretty interesting to watch, actually. As a limit player, I’m finding it useful to get a look at players’ hand selections and playing styles at the Event #7 Limit Hold ’em ($215) final table. (Look under the WCOOP tab in “Events” and click on “All” and you’ll see which final tables they’re replaying.)

So that’s one reason why I’m feeling a little fatigued today. There’s another reason, though.

While thousands of us were up late last night competing with each other in the game we love, Congress was also burning the midnight oil in an effort to pass legislation before heading into their October recess. One of the final items discussed last night (or, rather, early this morning) was legislation describing measures to protect the country’s hundreds of ports from potential terrorist attacks. This act (H.R. 4954, the “SAFE Port Act”) -- supported almost unanimously by representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle -- attracted several last-minute add-ons, including the Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (a version of the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act passed by the House back in July).

You might have heard about earlier, unsuccessful attempts to slide H.R. 4411 in with other legislation being brought before the Senate. Last week, Majority Senate leader Bill Frist (a Republican from Tennessee) tried to attach it to a defense spending bill, but was blocked from doing so by other senators. Frist has made clear his position that he believes internet gambling is harmful to families, “bringing an addictive behavior right into our living rooms.” Frist argues that internet gambling leads to other forms of criminal behavior, including money laundering, racketeering, and extortion. Frist has also made clear his intentions to run for president in 2008. He’s obviously betting that his chances won’t be affected should he lose the poker vote. (He’s probably right.)

Frist tried again last night, and this time he was successful. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was added to the SAFE Port Act, which the House then overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 409 to 2. Then the Senate -- or at least those senators who were still around -- discussed and passed the act as well (not by vote, but by a procedural maneuver). Some had suggested Frist wouldn’t be able to pull off such a deal. But he rivered this one and how.

What comes next? Now that the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act has been approved by both the House and the Senate, all that is left is for the president to sign it. And he will. Within the next ten days or so. Then things should get even more interesting . . . .

I wrote about the Act back in July. If you read that earlier post, you'll see a rundown of what the Act says and my thoughts about its possible consequences at the time. Think I'm slightly more apprehensive about the whole rigamarole today. For better informed views on the matter, check out the “Legislation” section of the 2+2 Forums for up-to-the-minute news and threads about how the Act might affect American online poker players.

Meanwhile, I'm gonna be turning in early tonight. Rather not try to battle the late night crazies while not fully rested and alert. Lot of sneaky deals happening when it gets late.

Image: Seal of the United States Congress (adapted), public domain.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Thin Green Line

The Five of LuckPlayed a few hands yesterday afternoon and had a funny one come up. Funny for me, anyway.

6-max limit, $0.50/$1.00 (as usual). I had played about thirty hands or so at this particular table and was sitting about even. There had been a lot of preflop raising, although on this particular hand it was one of the less active players, Powell, who started the action by preraising from UTG. I’m next to act and see I’ve been dealt 5s5h. Presto! I decided to reraise. I figured if I got loose calls, I’d cash in should the set arrive, and if I didn’t I’d have isolated Powell at least. The cutoff, MyrnaLoy, did indeed call the three bets, then it folded back to Powell who capped it. Didn’t feel like Powell had just two overs anymore, but I did make the call, of course, to see that flop. MyrnaLoy also called and we were three-handed with a pot of $6.75.

The flop came 2dTsJd and Powell bet out as expected. Hoping to confirm once and for all what my opponents were holding, I went ahead and raised it. Both called. What did I conclude? Figured Powell might hold a middle pair and didn’t care for that board much (esp. being out of position as he was). He could have flopped a set himself and was being cute, but that seemed unlikely. MyrnaLoy, meanwhile, likely had hit a jack or ten, or might be drawing. In any event, I was just about dead certain I wouldn’t be running my wired fives through this here board.

The turn was the Ks and UTG checked. If I had been at all unsure before, I was now thoroughly finished with the hand and checked behind. Myrna Loy also checked (perhaps fearing that king, I thought). The river was one of those seductive “dangerous dame”-types shamuses know often look too good to be true -- the 5d, giving me my set but also potentially making someone a flush.

Powell bet, giving me pause. Ace-queen would make sense here, I thought, if not for that third diamond. Thinking back, his capping preflop also made ace-queen less likely. I decided my set was likely going to beat whatever Powell held. As for MyrnaLoy, she could well be holding two diamonds here. Calling two bets cold after the flop did represent the behavior of a person on a draw. And cold-calling three bets before the flop did smell like something suited . . . perhaps . . . .

What would you do here?

I decided to raise. I was convinced I had Powell beat. I was 50-50 that I had MyrnaLoy beat. Someone smarter than me could explain this better, but I’m thinking that with a pot this big (we were up to $10.75 after Powell put in his river bet), no one was folding. That meant I’d be getting two-to-one on every dollar that I put in the pot from this point forward. And if I’m feeling like I’ve got half a chance at winning this sucker, then two-to-one on my money is pretty darn good.

(Someone smarter than me might also be able to explain why raising is not a good idea here. If so, I’m listening . . . .)

MyrnaLoy called my raise, as did Powell. A second later the chips slid across the screen and into my stack -- a $15.25 pot all told. And a $10.25 net profit for me. I quickly clicked on the “last hand” button to see what hands had been mucked -- Powell’s AdAc and MyrnaLoy’s QhQc.

Like I said, a funny hand. Where do we draw the line between luck and skill here? I win on a two-outer, but both of my opponents clearly made mistakes for that happen. Powell made at least one (checking the turn). MyrnaLoy arguably made three (not reraising preflop, just calling the flop, and checking the turn). (I’m not claiming to be above making similar mistakes -- I described myself making a similar goof just a couple of posts back.) Anybody plays back at me on that flop, I’m out. Any bet at all on that turn, I’m out. Sure, it took a 22-to-1 shot to come through for it to happen, but I think the best-played hand won.

Some who witness frequent suck-outs like this online -- players hitting their one- or two-outers to take down big pots -- want to question the integrity of the shuffling programs. Can’t happen so often, they say. Never see this in live play. I don’t think the difference is in the way the cards are shuffled, though. It is in how the cards are played. Players making mistakes -- either by chasing too much or by failing adequately to protect their big hands -- make it more likely for such river “miracles” to occur.

So says the luckbox river rat. Don’t you just hate him?

Image: A PartyPoker card (adapted).

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Money is Nothing, Money is Everything

'Pick-Up' by Charles WillefordESPN finally to show the final table of the 2006 WSOP Main Event tonight. Should be interesting. Still hard to imagine playing poker for that much money . . . .

As I alluded to in the last post, I find it difficult when playing not to remain concerned about what the chips on the table actually represent. I am almost always acutely conscious of the amount I am up or down in a given session. I am certain that this awareness is one (of several) factors keeping me playing lower stakes ($0.50/$1.00, mostly). There I can play my cards and the players without fretting over the size of the pot or what my stack might look like after the hand. And knowing that I am always playing with money I have won -- I have never had to reload since that initial buy-in long ago -- makes me even more comfortable with handling whatever risks I allow myself to take.

We often hear about how players of higher stakes are somehow able to avoid such distractions and focus on the game rather than how much scratch is moving back and forth across the table. “Money means nothing,” says Chip Reese to Al Alvarez in The Biggest Game in Town. “If you really cared about it, you wouldn’t be able to sit down at a poker table and bluff off fifty thousand dollars. If I thought what that could buy me, I could not be a good player. Money is just the yardstick by which you measure your success.”

Sounds like a hopeless paradox to me. Maybe to you, too. Money means nothing, but money is the ultimate “yardstick” -- the primary means by which we evaluate our play? Of course, what sounds paradoxical to us probably doesn’t seem that way to Reese or other high stakes players. They instinctively reconcile whatever contradiction most of us see there, then put it all in with nine-high.

Reminds me of a passage from Charles Willeford’s 1967 novel Pick-Up. The novel is one of the most intense examples of “hard-boiled” fiction you’re going to find, rivalling Camus in its exploration of existentialist thought. I recommend the book wholeheartedly to anyone interested in the genre. Those looking for “feel-good” stories need not bother. Nor should anyone who doesn’t like to expose him or herself to graphic, emotionally-draining descriptions of violence. I won't give away much in the way of plot details here. You've got to read this one to believe it. Trust me when I say this is one of those books that once you’ve reached the last page and have read the final lines, you will sit shaking your head for several minutes afterwards feeling a mixture of shock and admiration. And then you’ll never forget it. (Incidentally, do not read any reviews or analyses of the book first, as they may give away information that will affect your experience reading it.)

The story is told by Harry Jordan, a failed artist who now finds himself living a dissolute existence working odd jobs while dwindling into alcoholism. Late in the novel, Harry sits in prison waiting to be tried for murder. He’s convinced he will be found guilty and sent to the gas chamber. As he repeatedly tells jailers, lawyers, and other visitors to his cell, he actively desires such a fate. Knowing that he is about to die finally permits Harry to stop concerning himself with life -- something that had only barely concerned him previously, anyhow.

The day before his trial, Harry receives an unannounced visit from a man named Mr. Dorrell, an editor for something called He-Men Magazine. The magazine is interested in an “as-told-to” exclusive from Harry. They are willing to pay Harry one thousand dollars for such a story.

Harry rapidly dismisses Mr. Dorrell and his offer. He then reflects on the editor’s visit. “What kind of a world did I live in, anyway?” Harry asks the reader. “Everybody seemed to believe that money was everything, that it could buy integrity, brains, art, and now a man’s soul. I had never had a thousand dollars at one time in my entire life. And now, when I had the opportunity to have that much money, I was in a position to turn it down. It made me feel better and I derived a certain satisfaction from the fact that I could turn it down. In my present position, I could afford to turn down ten thousand, a million . . . ”

As Harry here explains, money no longer has significance for him, thus affording him a freedom to act as he wishes. Money meant little to him before (i.e., the rent, bottles of booze, the occasional steak). But now that he’s “in a position to turn it down,” Harry can act without worrying about consequences. Ironically, it is only here in prison that Harry finally begins to feel free of the constraints holding most of us back.

We think back to mythical characters like Stuey Ungar, the man Johnny Moss said had “alligator blood in his veins.” (Rounders steals this line, actually, when Teddy KGB says the same thing -- with undue hyperbole, I’d suggest -- to describe Mike McDermott.) At the end of The Biggest Game in Town, Alvarez describes Ungar’s victory in the 1981 World Series Main Event. When asked by reporters what he planned to do with the $375,000 that came with the bracelet, “Ungar ducked his head again, giggled, and muttered into his chest, ‘Lose it.’” The reporters don't seem to understand, so Ungar quickly revised his answer with a facetious “I’m gonna put it in the bank and give it to my kids, what else?”

Ungar, of course, mostly lived his life the way Harry Jordan is finally able to there in prison -- as if perpetually aware of an execution looming in the not-too-distant future. According to James McManus, Ungar played in only thirty or so NL hold ’em tourneys with $5,000 or higher buy-ins, and he won nine of them (including the three WSOP Main Event titles). Ungar obviously possessed enormous natural gifts (“preternatural,” actually, says McManus). But he also believed himself nearly always to be in a position not unlike Harry Jordan’s near the end of Pick-Up, able to “afford to turn down ten thousand, a million” (even when -- as explained in Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson’s biography of Ungar, One of a Kind -- that wasn’t always precisely the case for Ungar).

Enjoy the show tonight, if you happen to watch. And, as you evaluate the play, try not to think about the money.

Image: Pick-Up (1955), Charles Willeford, Amazon.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Poker Spells Different Things to Different People

Profit, Opponents, Knowledge, Enjoyment, RiskStill thinking about the many ways poker can be meaningful. Those five motives listed in the previous post (discussed by the Ante Up! guys) aren’t everything, of course. Poker can be other things as well. A creative outlet. An escape. A chance to socialize. An occasion for an amateur existentialist to explore his beliefs. You name it.

Even so, the more I think about those motives, the more I’m led to believe they might be refashioned as “principal categories” defining what poker means to (nearly) everyone who plays. In other words, poker means the following to all of us: (1) profit; (2) opponents; (3) knowledge; (4) enjoyment; and (5) risk. I don’t think I would be going very far out on a limb if I were to claim that anyone who plays poker does so because he or she wishes somehow to introduce these five things into his or her life -- to different degrees, of course.

As I mentioned before, these categories overlap considerably. It’s probably futile to try to talk separately about, say, wanting to make a profit and wanting to enjoy oneself. Indeed, it is a poker cliché to say I play to have fun but the more money I win the more fun I have. Still, we can distinguish between these motives somewhat, and part of assessing one’s own game is understanding which of these means more or less to oneself.

I thought I’d try to describe my own preferences here (or what I believe those preferences to be at this moment, anyway). To avoid becoming overly abstract, though, let me do so by discussing a particular hand I played from early last week. Rather than analyzing my play (directly), I’ll be analyzing what the hand “meant” to me given how I regard the significance of those five motives listed above. It’s a good thing, actually, that I’m not specifically analyzing my play in this hand, because it wasn’t so hot. In fact, it stunk. I’m about to share with you a (thankfully) rare instance of my having done what Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth repeatedly describe as a “disastrous” play in limit hold ’em -- I folded the best hand!

Here’s how the hand went down. It’s a 6-max, $0.50/$1.00 game. I’d been at the table for almost three orbits -- 16 hands, to be exact -- and so had just begun to pick up on some of my opponents’ tendencies. (I’d never played with any of these players previously.) The table was quite aggressive. For a hand to be checked around on any street had been a rarity. In those 16 hands I’d managed already to drop a little over $10, mainly thanks to having lost two fairly big hands. In the first, my JJ lost to AK when my opponent turned a king. In the other, I had limped into a family pot from late position with KT-offsuit, then called the big blind’s preflop raise (along with four other players). The board ended up T6249 (no flush) and I lost to the preraiser’s pocket queens.

In this particular hand I was in the BB and was dealt JJ once again. Before the flop, UTG limped, UTG+1 raised, I reraised, and both players called. So there’s $4.75 in the pot and I’m out of position against two opponents. And a little bit out of sorts, given the poor start to the session.

The flop came 5c5hQh -- a decent flop for me, one would think. I bet and both of my opponents called. $6.25 in the pot. The turn was the 3c and I actually checked. To be perfectly honest, my memory is a little foggy here as to why I checked. In fact, when I looked back at the hand in Poker Tracker I was surprised to see that I had. What the hell was I thinking?

I might have had an idea that one of my opponents would take a shot at stealing this pot (as I said, I’d seen very few examples of a round with no one betting out) and I would check-raise him. More likely, though, I had grown timid -- perhaps affected somewhat by having recently lost with jacks -- and didn’t like being out of position with this holding. Whatever my reasons were, both opponents seemed invigorated by my show of weakness, with UTG quickly betting and UTG+1 then raising to $2. I was sure one had at least paired his queen, and so I let it go. (Looking back, I can see how I might well have been looking for any excuse to let this one go.) The river brought the Qs, making the board 55Q3Q. I was slightly surprised to see both players check. UTG had Kc9c. UTG+1 had AhTh, winning the $10.25 pot (minus $0.45 for the rake) with his ace kicker to the two pair on the board.

Not too much worse, really, than taking a few hits in hands you play correctly (or mostly correctly), then losing a nice-sized pot after a misstep like this one. The check on the turn -- frankly an uncharacteristic move on my part -- killed me here. And the decision by the eventual winner of the hand to reraise was well-timed, since he succeeded in making the best hand fold.

So this was a hand I clearly botched, losing not only what I’d put in the pot but what others put in as well. What did the hand “mean” to me, though? Let’s see . . . .

Profit. I play poker for real money and keep careful records of my wins and losses. I am overall a winning player, and that is important to me as I continue forward. The fact that after this hand I had $2.00 less than I had before it started -- when I might well have added $7.80 or even more to my stack if I’d stayed in the hand -- obviously means something to me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the amount I earn in a given hand eclipses all other “meaning” for me, but it does tend to affect everything to some degree (for me). At times I think this is another potential flaw in my game, the fact that I care too much about what the chips actually represent. Indeed, fretting over losses in previous hands likely didn’t help my decision-making in this one.

Opponents. I do derive a great deal of motivation from facing competition. Some time back I attended a large midwestern university. For those who liked to play basketball, at this school they could easily find several pick-up games running in the centrally-located gymnasium -- pretty much 24/7. I played in the games regularly (three times a week). Shooting around is okay, I guess, but I always preferred the games. I liked having a place where I could count on finding opponents against whom I could compete. Poker similarly satisfies such a desire. While I’m generally not interested in seeking out conflicts in other areas of life, I do so when playing poker. I appreciate skillful play. In fact, I’d call it another weakness of mine not to walk away from a table when I find myself up against one or more obviously talented players. Rather, I want to stay and see if I can compete. In this hand, I like how both of my opponents played the turn -- both had flush draws, and both pounced after I showed weakness. Hopefully I learned something from how they handled this hand. I do hate losing the hand, though. Here I competed poorly and thus (as often, but not always, happens) ended the hand one of the losers. And that, too, is meaningful to me.

Knowledge. I do think I learned a bit from this hand and so it did satisfy my intellectual curiosity perhaps more than the average hand does. I learned something about these two players, obviously, as well as the situation I was in (one that will undoubtedly recur in the future). I also learned something about myself. I recognize a couple of patterns exemplified by the hand that may be of use to me in the future. I see how winning or losing previous hands can affect my decision-making moving forward. I also see how difficult it is to manage two opponents from out of position, particularly if both show aggression. (Additionally -- perhaps most importantly -- I also see in this hand evidence that I’m probably still not ready to move up a level.) Since building my knowledge base is a considerable motive for me, I see this hand as contributing significantly to that endeavor.

Enjoyment. Having fun playing poker is also important to me. And while I don’t necessarily equate having fun with winning money, I do tend to derive less pleasure from losing sessions. I probably have the most fun when I feel as though I’m playing well -- making good reads, value betting when appropriate, etc. So it is possible for me to lose money and still enjoy myself, although I doubt I could have fun for very long that way. The hand was hardly pleasurable for me, but I am getting a certain amount of gratification from looking back on it here. And so while adding to my knowledge base does provide me with a kind of pleasure, ultimately this hand mostly “means” pain for me.

Risk. Perhaps as a consequence of the particular importance I place on my profit, I do not receive any special satisfaction from taking risks. Especially foolhardy ones. My play in this hand certainly illustrates that tendency. As does my decision to stick primarily to limit games rather than venture over into the deep end of the pool and swim with the no limit sharks. I must like to gamble some, because however much we want to claim poker is a skill game, it is also gambling. And I’m certainly getting something from that. In this hand I toyed with risk a bit, then thought it too great to continue.

Like I said, I ain’t so proud of this here hand. But it does illustrate some of the things that poker “means” to me. What might be the optimal balance between these different motives -- or attempts at “meaning-making” -- that would produce the most successful poker player? Who knows? I suppose, in the end, the answer depends on what one means by “successful.”

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Who Am Us, Anyway?

Chris Cosenza and Scott Long, hosts of the poker podcast, 'Ante Up!'To continue (for one more post, anyway) this discussion of “Poker and Nothingness” . . . . Okay, then. For those of us who keep playing, poker means something. But what?

This week’s episode of Ante Up! did a nifty job of presenting and examining several of the reasons why people play poker. If you haven’t heard the show this week (#67), check it out. And if you don’t know about Ante Up!, well, get off yr keyster and start listenin’. With the retirement of Card Club on Lord Admiral Radio, Ante Up! is probably the poker podcast I enjoy and look forward to the most (closely followed by PokerDiagram and Rounders).

The main subject of this here episode -- “Psychology and Poker” -- was inspired by Cosenza’s recent announcement that he was through with online poker, a decision specifically prompted by a brutal bad beat -- losing a $430 pot to a rivered one-outer -- that punctuated an especially miserable weekend of online NL hold ’em. Cosenza wrote about his decision on the Ante Up! blog, prompting numerous comments, a thread over on the Card Clubs Network forums, and responses from both Long and occasional co-host Mike Fasso.

The hosts’ conversation was sincere and genuinely insightful (in my opinion). Although regular listeners already had a pretty good idea of the respective “player profiles” of both Cosenza and Long, the episode distinctly spelled out their many differences.

Cosenza specializes in no limit hold ’em, routinely playing games (both live and online) that feature $200 maximum buy-ins (e.g., the $1/$2 game at Full Tilt Poker). While not a professional, Cosenza is a consistently winning player who keeps careful records of his earnings and also cashes out frequently (i.e., he doesn’t play with his entire bankroll, and has in fact used his winnings to pay part of the mortgage on his house). He’s endured downswings and bad beats before. He’s also frequently skeptical of the “random number generators” used by online sites (one aspect of which I discussed a bit in a couple of earlier posts).

Conversely, Long does not specialize in any game in particular, although he does prefer limit games to no limit. He typically does not play for the stakes Cosenza does, and (as he admitted during this episode) is a losing player overall, although he isn’t terribly affected by that fact. (He likens the cost of poker to “tuition” -- i.e., he’s willing to pay to learn.) He’s spoken on the show before about losing swings and having had to reload his online accounts. He sympathizes with Cosenza’s skepticism regarding the "randomness" of shuffling programs online, but doesn’t seem to feel as adamant about the issue as does his co-host.

I’m not going to rehearse every detail of their conversation here, but I will make a couple of observations. The first is how in the course of describing their own motives the pair managed to identify a remarkable number of reasons why people play poker. Of these, the five they discussed most were (1) to make money; (2) to satisfy a desire to compete; (3) to experience an intellectual challenge; (4) to have fun/obtain pleasure; and (5) to experience the thrill of risk (i.e., to gamble).

For example, Long explained that having fun was for him a primary goal, and he suggested that Cosenza was more motivated by other motives -- namely, the first three (to make some scratch, to compete, and to be challenged) -- than by a desire to have fun. And Cosenza agreed Long was likely correct in his assessment. (Long also suggested Cosenza didn’t enjoy risk or “gambling” . . . a characterization which Cosenza only partially accepted.)

Note how all of these reasons are different “meaning-making” strategies employed by poker players. Or (to return the rarified air of the last post) different ways of combating “nothingness.” And they are all related, really. Notice how it is practically impossible to talk about one of these five motives without touching upon one or more of the others. Despite what some players might say, none actually play poker solely to make money and for no other reason. There are other ways of making money, most of them much easier than via poker. Poker “means” something else to these players, whether they realize it or not.

The second observation I’ll make is how both Cosenza and Long appear to contradict accepted stereotypes about limit and no limit players. Somewhat, anyway. I say that because Long loves to have fun, to be challenged, and doesn’t mind losing money -- three characteristics that seem to go against how limit players are typically characterized. Long hardly sounds like the image of limit “grinders” presented in Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town -- i.e., unimaginative “technicians” for whom “poker playing is strictly a business.” Nor does Cosenza sound like Alvarez’s no limit player attracted by “the romance of gambling,” somehow spellbound by the pleasure of risk-taking.

Proving (yet again) that poker can mean all sorts of things to different people. And . . . when you’re sitting there wondering if your pocket queens are any good against that check-raise all-in . . . for that guy sitting across the table, poker probably means something else to him than it does to you.

(Firesign Theatre fans recognize that post title as a line from their 1969 comedy LP How Can You Be in Two Places At Once, If You're Not Anywhere at All? Others, go get on the funway!)

Image: Ante Up! (adapted).

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Poker and Nothingness

René Magritte's 'La Reproduction Interdit' (slightly altered)Been intending for a while to try to explain that reference to existentialism in the descriptive subtitle to “Hard-Boiled Poker.” Partly alludes to the great hard-boiled novels of writers like Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Thompson, Willeford, and others, all of which could -- in one way or another -- arguably be categorized as notable examples of “existentialist art.”

I also have in mind a more direct connection to existentialism as defined and explained by Jean-Paul Sartre and others -- an implied argument, if you will, for a connection between poker and existentialist thought. A lot of ideas produced by the existentialists seem to me to be readily applicable to poker. They may even be useful. But that (as the existentialists would insist) is up to each individual to decide.

First there’s Sartre’s famous observation that existence precedes essence (as far as humans are concerned). We start with existence, then formulate ideas about who we are, what our “essence” or “nature” might be. Thus might we say that the experience of the poker player is what defines him. He plays a number of hands, then becomes a certain kind of player (to himself and to others). He plays more hands, and his so-called “essence” changes still again.

The way we exist -- what we say, what we do, whether we call preflop raises from late position with suited one-gappers -- defines who we are. (You might want to argue the reverse -- e.g., that my conservative “nature” is what makes me fold ace-rag preflop -- but the existentialist knows better. He knows that folding ace-rag is what makes me a conservative player.)

It doesn’t help, of course, that the world in which we exist is indifferent to our plight. At times it may appear to follow some “order” (and thus imply some sort of creator having fashioned it thusly), but in actuality such order is only the result of our own idiosyncratic perceptions -- our relentless attempts at “meaning-making.”

In a previous post, I mentioned Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth’s observation in Small Stakes Hold ’em that “cards are pieces of plastic . . . [that] have no knowledge, no memory, no cosmic plan.” In other words, despite the frequency and/or conviction of our invocations, there are no poker gods. And not only do the cards have no “memory” or “plan” -- they have no meaning, either. Not on their own, anyway. (Just like everything else, actually.)

Facing such a circumstance, we could go the route of the nihilist and say that having accepted (1) existence precedes essence & (2) that the world is indifferent to us, there is no point in going forward. It’s a common mistake, actually, to say the existentialist believes life has no meaning. Not so. It’s the nihilist who believes life is without meaning, purpose, truth, what have you. (Sartre titled his book Being and Nothingness -- not simply “nothingness” -- deliberately choosing a phrase that implies a kind of ongoing conflict.)

Unlike the nihilist, the existentialist understands and accepts that we are the ones creating meaning -- that we are free, in fact, to make whatever we want of the world. To change the world, or what it means to us . . . for the better, even (if that’s your cup of tea).

We’re on our own, though. No “god” is going to help us. (Thus does such freedom produce a great deal of anxiety in us.) The poker player cannot control the cards. Nor can he perfectly control others’ actions at the table (although he can influence those actions). But he can certainly affect what those cards mean (to him). He can affect what his opponents’ actions mean (to him). And he can affect what his own actions mean (to himself). In fact, he not only can affect the meanings of those things -- he necessarily does affect what they mean. Every single hand.

In that earlier post (about Dostoevsky’s The Gambler -- another example of “existentialist” art, one might argue), I proposed that poker might be defined as “an activity in which each participant is trying to exert the most control in situations where everyone is a little out of control.”

In a way, that’s what I’m trying to say here about “meaning-making” at the poker table (and beyond). Poker is meaningful . . . because we give it meaning. And when we play, we not only confront other players, we confront that villainous “nothingness” who always seems to be following us around, showing up in the bathroom mirror, sitting across from us on the bus, waiting in line behind us at the store . . . .

And while we sometimes lose to the other players, we beat him . . . every time.

Image: Portrait of Edward James (a.k.a. Not to Be Reproduced) (1937) (adapted -- notice the book on the table), Rene Magritte, fair use.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Sir, Your Table Is Ready . . .

Had a nice table draw early on . . . Yesterday took what will likely be my last shot at trying to sneak into that WCOOP Limit Hold ’em event over on PokerStars scheduled for this Friday. Had visions of a massive post detailing my success in outlasting 246 others to win one of the six spots being awarded in that FPP rebuy satellite yesterday afternoon. Didn’t happen, though. I played fairly well for the first hour at least, and was still sitting with an average stack once we’d gotten down to 70 players. But I ended up getting bounced out in rapid, fairly mundane fashion, really, and so became instantly less inspired to revisit the whole affair here.

I will share one observation, however, about table draws in tourneys. I had the unique experience of sitting at the same table for nearly two hours before getting moved for the first time yesterday. Making it even nicer was the fact that while some players came and went, the core group at the table were all fairly easy reads. Most were passive players doing a lot of folding and calling. In fact, only one player even bothered to rebuy at the beginning. For me the opening rebuy is usually automatic (as is taking the add-on), but in this case I actually didn’t since there was only one other player at the table against whom having more chips would matter. (It could be that others at the table followed the same logic, actually . . . I don’t know.) And I did take down a couple of pots early, thereby nullifying the rebuy option for myself.

We had a couple of players who were frequently sitting out, including one to my left who sat out at the beginning and never returned. Thus the few times the table folded to me in the SB, I got to take his blind uncontested. Nice, right? Well, I saw a player on the other side of the table watch the table fold to him in the SB, then he folded to the BB who was sitting out. Even nicer!

My favorite hand of the whole tourney was the very last one of level 4 (blinds 100/200, stakes 200/400), the final hand of the rebuy period. The player to my right -- HerkyJerky -- had suddenly woken up and been preraising about two-thirds of the hands for the last ten minutes or so. When he showed down, he’d usually have paint or an ace, but nothing special. I tangled with him a couple of times, losing a big bet or two to him overall. Despite not catching much in the way of premium hands, I’d held steady at around 3,000 for most of the hour. On this particular hand I was at 2,790, and HerkyJerky was down to 1,090.

The message announcing that the break would be starting at hand’s end had already appeared when the player UTG raised it to 200. A mid-position player called, as did HerkyJerky from the button. I was in the SB with a pair of eights and just called it. I suppose I could’ve made a reraise here, but I was sure all three of my opponents would be coming along -- particularly HerkyJerky, since the rebuy period was still open. The BB folded, and the flop came 8c6sQd. It checked around to HerkyJerky who bet, I raised, he reraised, and I capped. Clearly we were going to the river with this one. The turn was the Jh and HerkyJerky soon had all his chips in the middle. The river brought another jack, and HerkyJerky showed his queen for top pair. I was up to 4,380 in chips, above the average stack. Meanwhile, HerkyJerky surprisingly chose not to rebuy and left the tourney having finished in 178th.

In fact, out of 252 entrants nearly 30% dropped out during the rebuy period -- terrific for those of us for whom leaving early is not an option. I took the add-on, giving me 6,380 chips; the average chip stack at the end of the add-on was 4,254. That put me 30th out of 175 players.

I stayed at my table for a two-and-half more fifteen-minute levels, building my stack to 7,580. Then, after 119 hands, I was abruptly moved to a new table. And I knew immediately I didn’t like it. The average stack at my new table was well over 10,000 -- more than three thousand above the average for the tourney. The player to my immediate right had over 20,000, putting him in the top five overall. Three others had over 15,000. So strike one for Shamus.

I had to wait a hand for the button to pass me, and witnessed four players cap the betting preflop and post-flop, then two more taking it to the showdown in a hand where the winner had middle pair. More aggression here in one hand -- from big stacks -- than I’d seen for the last 90-plus minutes. Strike two.

Then comes my first hand -- pocket-friggin'-jacks. (Strike three, right?) First big pair I’d been dealt the whole tourney, actually. Mr. 20,000 reraises my preflop raise, and when a queen flops I end up letting it go (a decision I second-guessed immediately). I’m down to 6,080 -- not too far below the tourney average, but well below that of this particular table.

Almost every hand is going to showdown, so I decide I’m going to need to take a stand in here somewhere. Before my first orbit here is done I pick up pocket tens in early-position and raise it. The player to my left -- the short-stack of the table with 3,560 in chips -- instantly reraises me. We end up getting almost all of his chips in once the flop comes 4d4s7d, then the last bit of ’em on the turn (a king). Alas, he has kings in the hole -- crushing me with a boat -- and I’m down to 1,770. Next hand I play I flop top pair and lose the rest to Mr. 20,000’s set. And that was that. Ten hands total at my new table, and I was done.

An okay tourney, I suppose, but I clearly didn’t handle the table change very well. I frankly didn’t have much of a plan at all once I realized the new situation, and folding the jacks that first hand didn’t help the confidence much, either. All in all, a pretty clear lesson that whatever the competition will be like at the WCOOP event, I probably ain’t exactly ready for it. Will be sticking with ring games for awhile, I think. You get to pick your tables there.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

It's a Fish-Eat-Fish World

It's a Fish-Eat-Fish World . . . PokerStars currently has a reload bonus promotion in effect through Tuesday, September 19th. These don’t come around as often on Stars as they do on other sites (e.g., Party Poker). The Stars bonuses are nice because they are relatively easy to clear (unlike, say, what Full Tilt offers) and you have six months to play the necessary number of hands (unlike, say, Party Poker where bonuses often need to be cleared within one week). I’ve actually started keeping a sum over in Neteller from which I can draw in order to take advantage of these offers when they come around.

Was reading an interesting thread yesterday over on the Two Plus Two forums that began with someone publicizing the Stars reload bonus to other “Microers” (i.e., micro limit players). Subsequent posts started to describe how promotions like this tend to affect the play at the tables. Some held the position that one encounters more skillful players just after a reload bonus is announced. As one poster put it, “I feel like I’m fishing at the pier and all the lines are in the water but the fish are already in someone else’s bucket.” An interesting point, but I don’t think I'm gonna put too much stock in generalizations about how the ratio of good-to-bad players gets momentarily affected by reload promotions. As I said, one has six whole months to clear the Stars bonus, so if the waters seem too treacherous right now, just wait a few weeks for the fish to return . . . .

Speaking of fish, as I began working to clear that Stars bonus I had a fishy hand earlier today I thought I’d share. This was 6-max, $0.50/$1.00 limit Hold ’em. It folded to me in the cutoff seat where I’d been dealt TsQd. I called (fish-like, no?). The button and small blind both folded, and the big blind -- HowDareYou -- checked.

Now I’d only played about two dozen hands with HowDareYou to this point, but he’d already established himself as an aggressive player. Looking at Poker Tracker afterwards, I see he voluntarily put money in the pot over 59% of the hands I played with him. I didn’t know this exact figure while we were playing, but I could see that HowDareYou tended to play a lot of hands and didn’t shy away from pressuring opponents to fold when he thought he was good.

The flop came 9h6c8d and HowDareYou led out with a bet. I assumed by his bet that he'd caught some part of that flop. Influenced equally by my overcards, draws, and position -- and, perhaps, simple-minded inertia -- I decided just to call. (Narrating this now, after the fact, I see that a raise from me was certainly in order here. See why?) The pot was a modest $2.25. The turn then came the Ks and HowDareYou bet the dollar. My sense was he probably didn’t have the king and was hopeful I didn’t either.

I could’ve let this hand go. In fact, that was precisely my first instinct. The pot wasn’t really big enough to get too excited over. My pot odds weren’t so hot, either -- only 3.25-to-1 to call. But I reconsidered when I thought about what river cards would give me the hand. I still had my double-gutshot draw to a straight. And I believed my queen was probably live, too. (The ten I was less sure about.) So that was eight outs for the straight, plus three more should the queen arrive. There was no flush draw, so all of the outs appeared reasonably clean.

So I called. I might’ve even raised, actually, though I decided the only purpose that would serve would be to build the pot, since HowDareYou wasn’t going anywhere. He’d call even if he thought I had the king, I was sure. And if I made the pot too big here, there was no way he’d fold to a bluff on the river should I fail to hit anything.

Luckily enough, the river was bingo for me, the Jd. HowDareYou bet, I raised, he called, and I took down the $7.85 pot (minus $0.40 for the rake). “Nice runner runner,” HowDareYou sarcastically chimed in the chat box. I didn’t respond. I tightened up for the next round or two, hoping to take advantage of my newly-fashioned image as an unthinking calling station, but the table broke up too soon for it to matter much.

During the next hand I looked in the hand history to see that HowDareYou had held 9s4c. Not to say I played the hand particularly well -- indeed, the act of describing this hand shows me pretty clearly I wasn't at my best here -- but here's someone calling a late position river reraise with a pair of nines while staring at two overcards and a possible straight on the board.

The fish are still biting, all right. Come drop in a line and see how it goes. By the way, if you happen to pull out a brown, medium-brimmed fedora, that's mine . . . .

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Thanks, Lord Admiral Radio

Card Club on Lord Admiral RadioAbout three months ago I spent a couple of posts writing up a “Podcast Line-Up” -- basically a ranking of ten poker podcasts of which I was aware at the time. For each of the ten I wrote a brief review -- here’s Part 1 (#6-#10) and here’s Part 2 (#1-#5). Since then, I’ve been regularly listening to a couple of other podcasts not mentioned in that list, including the weekly show produced by Pocket Fives (briefly discussed in a previous post) and Phil Gordon’s less frequently-produced The Poker Edge (part of ESPN’s “Poker Club”). I may in the not-too-distant future write a new post that updates the rankings by adding the new ones, dropping some of the old ones, and revising some of the reviews to reflect where some of these podcasts have gone since early summer.

Alas, any updated list of podcasts will necessarily omit the one I had rated at the very top of my rankings, Card Club on Lord Admiral Radio. Card Club bid us all farewell a couple of weeks ago, ceasing production after a whopping 84 episodes (and change). I just wanted to take a moment to thank “Cincinnati” Sean, Brent “Stacks,” “Headhunter” Mark, Evan “the Terrible,” Erik, Dan, and all the other Lord Admirals for having produced such a fine show over such a long period of time (from November 2004 through August 2006). There are numerous reasons why I enjoyed Card Club . . . I’ll just list three here.

The Lord Admirals letting us sit in . . . For one, Card Club was genuinely informative when it came to poker strategy and theory. The group often quizzed each other from their favorite poker books. They also intelligently discussed hands sent in by listeners and from their home game. And they didn’t just talk Hold ’em, but Omaha, Stud (five- and seven-card), Razz, and even the odd Anaconda hand. And, of course, Columbo’s terrific One Minute Mysteries (now relocated over to the Ante Up! podcast) added significantly to the proceedings.

Even though Sean and Stacks never once professed themselves to be experts about any game or aspect of poker, they were nevertheless routinely insightful in their discussions. The show was helpful in other ways as well. In their next-to-last broadcast (episode 83), Sean, Stacks, and Mark openly discussed the level of success each had achieved in their respective poker careers. I appreciated the openness with which they described their successes (and failures) at the tables. They also touched on their ambitions as poker players, all three identifying reasonable, modest goals for themselves.

Any successful poker player understands the importance of self-assessment, and it helps to hear or read others having such conversations as we try to interpret our own progress as players. I think most regular listeners would agree that they almost always benefitted in some tangible way from having listened to the show.

Secondly, the show was purposely geared toward the amateur player in a way that made it both unique and particularly rewarding to short-stacked types like myself. A few other poker podcasts aim for such a focus, and some (e.g., Ante Up!, PokerDiagram) are quite successful at doing so. Most podcasts still tend to be geared more towards the professional circuit, however. While shows like Rounders and CardPlayer’s The Circuit are always interesting and worth listening to, interviews with professional players are usually hit-or-miss affairs -- entertaining, perhaps, but not always of particular relevance to us players of lower limits.

Finally, I always appreciated the inclusive approach taken by the Lord Admirals -- indeed, listening to the show was a little bit like being part of a “Card Club” that met on a weekly basis. Sean repeatedly stressed the desire to build a community of poker players with the podcast. Judging from the always active Lord Admiral forum (located over on the Card Clubs Network), comments on the show’s blog, and the extensive network of poker bloggers who continually made the podcast a common point of reference, the show appears to have been successful at realizing such a community-building goal.

Thanks again, guys, for all of the effort creating and maintaining the show for so long. Well played.

(If you’re not familiar with Card Club, old shows remain available. Episodes 37-84 are still posted on the Lord Admiral’s blog; Episodes 2-24 & 26-36 are still up over at Feedburner.)

Image and Photo: Card Club on Lord Admiral Radio.

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