Friday, August 29, 2008

Shake Some Action

“Shake some action’s what I need to let me bust out at full speed...”

Pulling a Lee Jones today by starting out with a song lyric. Been listening to the Flamin’ Groovies this week. One of the greats, though probably a good number of rock/pop fans don’t even know about ’em. Critics often compared ’em to the Rolling Stones, which I guess is somewhat apt when we’re talking about their earlier discs like Flamingo (1970) and Teenage Head (1971). I’d more quickly suggest Big Star or the Kinks for comparative purposes, though really the Groovies were one of a kind

Shake Some Action comes a bit later -- 1976 -- although it hardly sounds like the mid-seventies. That pulsing, infectious title track sounds like an 80s college hit. Other tracks on the record evoke early 60s Brit pop, though usually even those are tinged with some sort of twist or weird forward-looking element. Probably explains why the Flamin’ Groovies never really rose above cult status. Their timing was way out of kilter with the rest of the world.

I mentioned earlier in the week how I’d only had a limited amount of time here lately to play. Usually short sessions are much better for me, but they also make it difficult to get familiar with others’ styles and/or successfully establish an image of my own to try to exploit.

Have found myself several times this month feeling out of sorts while playing. For a variety of reasons I’ve been becoming too passive and essentially depending on getting good cards and hitting flops to come away even or ahead. Was starting to talk about this feeling some a couple of weeks ago in that post titled “Sometimes the Cards Play Us.”

Have slipped into that funk often enough to recognize some of its characteristics -- a good thing, since that then becomes a first step out of it. I’ll call it “Can’t Win Poker,” a style which essentially prevents you from doing well in a session unless the deck hits you in a particularly gracious and accommodating way (and the other players cooperate, too).

“Can’t Win Poker” manifests itself differently, sometimes depending on the game, though I suspect the primary characteristics of the style are similar no matter if it we’re talking pot-limit Omaha (my game), no-limit hold’em, limit hold’em, or the other games.

For me, in PLO, I start to realize I’m playing “Can’t Win Poker” when the frequency of my preflop raising slows down and perhaps even stops altogether. Then I start finding it hard to bet at pots where I have less than the nuts. Next thing I know, I am getting A-A-x-x in middle position and realize I can’t really raise that, either, as I’ve been playing in a way that essentially signals to all what my holding would be in that spot. I’m also limping in with too many “what-am-I-hoping-for?” hands. You know, those uncoordinated hands where the only way to connect with a flop would be to make a miraculous boat right away, and the likelihood of getting paid for that is minimal.

I think sometimes you can still do okay playing “Can’t Win Poker” if you have enough opponents at the table who are also playing “Can’t Win Poker.” In fact, when I’m running good-slash-playing well, I usually can identify pretty quickly a couple or more such folks and eventually find a spot to move some of their chips over to my stack.

Like I say, I suppose this self-defeating style manifests itself in different ways, say, in other games like NLHE, but probably there also tends to involve an overly passive, card-dependent, transparent approach that necessarily works against one’s goals.

What I’ve started to do when I notice this happening in my PLO games is simply to wait until I’m back in late position, then put in a raise preflop no matter what cards I am holding. Usually the raise gets some to fold, as I’ve been so darn passive. Then I’ll try to play smart postflop, pursuing a hand if it makes sense to do so, but letting it go, too, if need be. In any event, just the act of putting in that raise -- to “shake some action” -- kind of wakes me up and gets me back in the game. Also helps me work on my image, too, as well as perhaps clue me in to how others are playing.

And then, perhaps, I don’t feel so out of kilter -- like the Flamin’ Groovies always were. Check out the clip below. It is from much later (1986), but still a killer version of the tune.

Lee Jones would go back to the song at the end, so I guess I will, too...

“...and I’m sure that’s all you need to make it all right.”

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Republicans’ Slowroll

Republicans at work trying to decide who they areDuring this week and next, the country’s two major political parties are having their conventions as part of the run-up to the November elections. Aside from all the speeches and songs, the conventions primarily serve as occasions for both parties to anoint officially their chosen candidates for president and vice-president. The conventions also are where each party approves its so-called “platform” -- i.e., that collection of core beliefs, values, and principles that inform the party’s self-professed identity (of the moment, anyway).

Used to be that the conventions were where these platforms were debated upon and ultimately composed, though nowadays all of that tends to take place prior to the conventions and usually only members of the “Platform Committee” are directly involved in those discussions. Delegates do vote on the platform at the convention, but it is essentially a ceremonial event -- for example, the Democrats presented their platform at their convention on Monday, and it was adopted by a voice vote without any debate on the convention floor. But it had already essentially been adopted back in early August.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are still putting the finishing touches on their platform, including considering (and reconsidering) whether or not they wish to include language decrying online gambling.

Since 2000, the Republicans have had the following statement opposing online gambling in their platform: “Millions of Americans suffer from problem or pathological gambling that can destroy families. We support legislation prohibiting gambling over the Internet or in student athletics by student athletes who are participating in competitive sports.” By contrast, the Democrats have no corresponding language regarding gambling -- of any variety -- in their platform.

On Tuesday morning the Republican party’s Platform Committee decided to drop those two sentences -- along with a number of others that had appeared in the previous platform. All told, the new version was something like half the length of the previous one. Said Richard Burr, the Republican senator from North Carolina and co-chair of the Platform Committee, the idea was to “make the tent bigger” and not alienate potential supporters of Republican candidates needlessly with statements such as the one opposing online gambling. However, Burr did say at the time that the anti-online gambling statement (as well as other excised statements) could well reappear if anyone on the committee proposed an amendment to replace it.

And by dinner time on Tuesday, such an amendment was indeed proposed by Kendal Unruh, a Republican activist from Colorado who serves on the Platform Committee as a member of the “Defending the Nation, Securing the Peace” subcommittee. “Internet gambling represents the most invasive and addictive form of gambling in our history,” argued Unruh. The amendment passed, and the two sentences were reinserted. The Republican party’s platform is scheduled to be adopted on September 1, the first day of their convention.

A bit of a slowroll, then, with online poker players falsely believing for a better part of a day the Republicans were going to lay off the online gambling bit for a while. During that hopeful interim, the Poker Players Alliance issued a response saying that the removal of those lines was, in the words of PPA Executive Director John Pappas, “a small victory” in the fight to protect our rights to play online poker. But the lines are back. A small defeat, I guess.

Only one of the two sentences -- the first -- actually could be said to concern online poker, insofar as continuing to “support legislation prohibiting gambling over the Internet” also refers to supporting laws to stop people from playing online poker. And it does, I think, for most of those who want to keep that sentence in the platform.

The subsequent association with student-athletes’ betting on games (the second sentence) is frankly misleading -- as are a lot of the arguments evoked by politicians who oppose online gambling -- although for that small percentage of student-athletes who do get involved in such activities, being able to gamble via the web certainly enables them to do so.

In any case, the Republicans’ back-and-forthing here does signify a certain internal conflict within the party regarding the significance of such legislation which for many represents government gratuitously interceding into citizens’ private affairs -- the sort of intrusion the “Grand Old Party” usually represents itself as avoiding (and often accuses the other party of doing too much).

And perhaps that internal conflict may manifest itself down the road in the form of support for some sort of anti-UIGEA bill -- or, more likely, a continued (indefinite?) delay of the finalization of the UIGEA regulations.

Of course, from a practical standpoint, whether or not those two sentences are included in the Republicans’ platform should matter relatively little to online poker players. Even though political platforms address real world issues, the documents themselves exist in a kind of strange netherworld of mostly symbolic significance. Notes to self, you might call ’em.

And we poker players well know how hard it is to follow those.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Chicken or the Egg?

The Chicken or the Egg?Was unable to catch ESPN’s coverage last night of the $10,000 pot-limit Omaha World Championship (Event No. 50), though I’ll probably try to pick it up later in the week. While I worked several PLO events at this year’s World Series of Poker, that was one I did not. Still, I am always curious to see how non-hold’em games get presented. Coverage of the Main Event begins next week.

Speaking of ESPN, for those still interested in further context and/or analysis of Scotty Nguyen’s “performance” at the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event (Event No. 45), first aired on ESPN last week, tournament director Matt Savage provides a response over on PokerNews centering on the various rules that were violated that night. Also, there have been a couple more podcasts of late concerning the final table and/or ESPN’s coverage that are worth checking out.

One was Gary Wise’s Wise Hand Poker podcast (the 8/20/08 episode), which features an interview with Event No. 50 runner-up and primary Nguyen antagonist Michael DeMichele. DeMichele does a good job explaining his perspective of the various goings-on from that evening, candidly answering all Wise’s well-chosen questions. (Looks like DeMichele is also on the newest episode of the TwoPlusTwo Pokercast, which I have yet to hear.) Incidentally, that show also features an interview with current Main Event chip leader Dennis Phillips, in which Phillips again proves himself an interesting, likable, “everyman.”

The other was the most recent installment of Big Poker Sundays (8/24/08), on which the always thoughtful Shane “Shaniac” Schleger joined Scott Huff. They spent an entire hour discussing the H.O.R.S.E. final table, Nguyen’s antics, ESPN’s manner of packaging the program, Norman Chad’s editorializing, and other, more general topics related to etiquette, rules enforcement, and the ol’ “good of the game” issue.

Toward the end of the Big Poker Sundays show, Huff and Schleger talk about the effect of television and the potential rewards it brings to professional poker players, as well as the impact the prospect of such rewards sometimes has on how they behave. Says Huff, “It’s gotten to the point now in poker that some of these guys who are quote-unquote ‘stars of the game’ have really gone off the deep end” in terms of how they present themselves to the public -- especially when the television cameras are around. To Huff, it appears that “promoting yourself has become [such] a big deal for some of these guys to the point where they’ve totally lost it.”

Schleger’s response made me think a little of what I had written last Friday about the incident, particularly those observations of Tommy Angelo’s I shared concerning the stressful nature of poker. Schleger half-jokingly observed that sometime during this year’s WSOP he’d concluded that “95 to 99% of all full-time poker players have some kind of, you know, clear mental disease... clear mental illness... myself included,” listing traits such as an “extreme level of self-absorption,” “paranoid delusions,” and “manic depressive psychosis” as evidence that “we’re all messed up in the head, severely.” Circling back to Nguyen and the H.O.R.S.E. event, Schleger concluded “you add television cameras, you add alcohol, and this is what you get.”

As I say, Schleger is half-kidding around here, but he makes an interesting observation (I think) about the kind of person who gravitates towards poker/gambling in general, and professional tournament poker in particular.

Angelo spoke on that TwoPlusTwo Pokercast (the 8/18/08 episode) of how poker “tests us,” presenting numerous stressors (all at once) that are very similar those we encounter away from the poker tables, kind of like a “little microcosm” of the larger world.

In other words -- and I’m overgeneralizing points made by Angelo and Schleger just a bit here -- Angelo is talking about how poker makes us crazy, while Schleger is suggesting it is the crazy ones who find poker. “We’re diseased, screwed-up individuals,” says Schleger, “who are very lucky something that something like gambling came along that we can make a living at.”

So which came first? Were we crazy before we found poker? Or did poker make us that way?

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Levels of Difficulty

The Difficulty MeterWas listening the other day to the latest episode of Bart Hanson’s Cash Plays (8/20/08) -- a consistently smart & interesting podcast, in my opinion -- which includes a good interview with cash game pro Gabe Thaler. Among other topics covered in the show, Hanson asks Thaler a question about playing deep-stacked no-limit hold’em.

The question actually follows up on something discussed in an earlier episode of Cash Plays and concerns the relatively rare situation of having to fold a set in no-limit hold’em. I won’t go through the entire question, but essentially Hanson asks Thaler how he feels about the argument that in order to play deep-stacked, high-stakes NLHE, one has to be able to fold a set if the circumstances warrant doing so.

I love Thaler’s response: “My feeling is that I don’t like to play in any poker game where people fold sets. I try and find other poker games, ’cos that’s just too f*cking good.”

Thaler brings up the same point a couple of other times in the interview -- that basically it is silly to play in games against tough opponents if there are other, less difficult games available.

Like most of us, I’m miles and miles away from the stakes of the games Hanson usually discusses on his show, but I still think I get something from the discussions. And that advice from Thaler -- that one really should seek out weaker opponents and avoid tougher ones whenever possible -- makes sense no matter what the stakes. Had a short little session of pot-limit Omaha on Bodog yesterday that confirmed the idea, in a way.

I’ve been wanting to play PLO on Bodog more often, but haven’t all that much of late for a couple of reasons. One is that I have some sort of firewall issue happening on my laptop which prevents me from being able to log on to Bodog.

Shamus at BodogI’ve uninstalled and reinstalled and still get the same error message. I phoned their support -- who I have to say, was very, very supportive, taking an inordinately long time with me trying to figure out what my problem was -- but we couldn’t resolve the issue. Most other programs work fine (including other online poker sites), but there are a couple which are behaving similarly, so I’m sure it is something on my end. I’ll figure it out one day, perhaps with the help of my tech-savvy brother.

The other reason I haven’t played that much on Bodog is that usually there aren’t too many PLO tables running at my preferred limits ($25 and $50 max. buy-in). I don’t play in the evening that often, so it’s usually daytime when I log in to find at best two and often just one table of PLO25 running -- six-handed, no less, and usually full.

So often I’ll just log in, take a look around, then log out and head elsewhere.

Yesterday I had just a short while to play -- a half-hour, max. -- and so took a peek over on Bodog to see what was happening. Again, just two tables of 6-max. PLO25 (both full), and a single table of 6-max. PLO50 (also full). Meanwhile, there were four tables of PLO10 running: three 6-max. & one full ring, all mostly full. So I took a seat really just out of a vague desire to play a hand or two on Bodog.

Stepping down a notch stakes-wise is often difficult for most of us. In fact, it might be one of the many paradoxes of poker that good players step down in stakes all the time, while poor players don’t (and/or move up when they shouldn’t).

As a part-time, recreational player, I’m tend not to be possessed by ambition to move up in stakes (although being human, I do contemplate the idea now and again). I know, however, I don’t want to move down -- at least not to the PLO10 tables -- and so as I took the first few hands was considering the exercise a strictly temporary, “special occasion”-type event. I was also preparing myself mentally to be frustrated. Not that the tables at PLO25 and PLO50 are necessarily dominated by brainiacs (doubt I’d be there, if they were), but I did figure to encounter a slightly higher-than-average amount of less tutored play at the lower level.

A windy preamble to what is essentially the story of a single opponent and two hands. In both hands, I’m playing from the blinds and manage to luck into hitting the nuts. So both presented me with the challenge of trying to get paid from early position with a big hand.

In the first hand, three others had limped, and I had 9c3cQdAh in the big blind. I checked, and the flop came ThKsJc. The small blind checked, and I went ahead and bet the pot (a measly forty cents). Now what I’m expecting here is for the player with the set -- or in some cases, two pair -- to call (or, maybe, raise), and the guy who also has Broadway to raise it up. Or, perhaps, everyone to fold -- which would not be bad at all. As nice a flop as that is, it is not the most comfortable spot to be in when acting from early position.

Anyhow, I get two callers (the small blind went away). The turn was the 4s. I was still good, but now there’s the spade flush to worry about as well. I went ahead and pumped $1.60 (a pot-sized bet) in the middle. I’ll admit I’m influenced here by the relatively small stacks. I only had $12.45 when the hand began, so there was not much reason to be cute. Again, both of my opponents just called. One could also have Broadway here, but I’d have expected a raise if so. Pot up to $6.40.

The river was a good one -- the 7c. Worst I can do is chop. In these Bodog hand histories, there’s a timestamp for every single action, so I can tell you with confidence that I waited exactly ten seconds before acting on that river card. That was deliberate. I then bet one dollar.

Now I’m thinking this is the most transparent sort of value bet imaginable. No one is gonna buy this, are they? But to my delight, the player to my left called my bet two seconds later. Then the other guy -- ShowMeMoe -- waited twelve seconds before raising the pot with a bet of $10.40.

Oh, well. So I will be chopping. I called, of course, and the player to my left folded. I showed my nut straight, and ShowMeMoe turned over As9h8c6s. Wha? He’d flopped a pair of aces (and a pretty hopeless straight draw), turned a flush draw, then rivered a jack-high straight. I won the $28.05 pot -- a nice one by my standards, never mind the stakes.

About ten hands later I was in the small blind with a pretty good holding -- QcJcTd8s. Three limped, I completed, and the big blind checked. The flop came Ah5sQs. I wasn’t too interested in this one, but when ShowMeMoe bet a quarter into the fifty-cent pot and no one else came along, I decided to take one off. The turn brought the Kd. How do you do? Broadway. Nice to meet you again.

I paused just a bit (six seconds this time), then bet the pot. ShowMeMoe took two seconds to call. Pot $3.00. The river was the 3d and again I had the good fortune of ending the hand with the nuts. I took four seconds to bet the pot, and ShowMeMoe took half that long to call me. His hand? JsAcKs5c. Top two and another busted flush. $8.95 to Shamus.

Up over $20, I folded a few more hands then took off, wondering how much less I’d have made if I’d played those exact same hands at a higher limit. In both hands, the only “subtle” play I made was the dollar value bet on the end of the first one, and to my way of thinking, that was almost pathetic in its blatancy. Even making the nuts in both, I really shouldn’t have made more than a pittance given the other hands’ having come up short (not to mention my being out of position).

Of course, I’d planned going in to keep it simple. Which frankly ain’t that bad of an approach in PLO25 and PLO50, either.

In the end, the stakes you play don’t matter nearly as much as the ability of yr opponents (relative to yr own, that is). So find those ShowMeMoe shmoes -- or PLO games in which players try to bluff you off yr obvious nuts -- wherever you can. And if they’re folding sets in yr NLHE game, do like Thaler and find another table.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

The Poker Cause: Phelps Helps

Michael PhelpsLike most of the world, I tuned in yesterday to see some of the coverage of the conclusion of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. In the morning saw the tape of the U.S. men’s basketball team hang on against Spain, then last night watched a bit of the closing ceremonies. As much as I like Zeppelin, I ain’t too sure how exactly “Whole Lotta Love” (with suitably expurgated lyrics) fits into the larger message of the Olympic movement. But whatever. As with the opening ceremonies, the whole spectacle was pretty eye-popping.

For poker fans, the highlight of the games was probably that story about swimmer Michael Phelps’ professed ambitions to play in the 2009 World Series of Poker. That one surfaced (pun intended) soon after Phelps had grabbed the eighth of his gold medals.

I saw it first in The New York Times (8/19/08), where in an article about Phelps’ intentions to “return to normalcy,” he was described as an “avid card player,” saying “it would be cool” to play in the WSOP. It was at an initial, post-medals press conference that Phelps spoke of his interest in poker. “‘My game is a little off right now, so I’ll have to start improving it a little bit,’” he is quoted as saying.

I then saw the Poker Shrink’s notice the same day as the NYT article that Phelps had already been invited to play in the 2009 NBC National Heads Up Poker Championship. Soon after that I read that the Asian Poker Tour had also invited Phelps to play in the Macau event (which begins on September 1). The letter to Phelps from Jeff Mann, an APT rep, explains how the APT would happily “fly you in, organize your accommodation, and buy-you in [sic] to the tournament.” Mann also goes on in a somewhat silly vein to joke that Phelps “almost certainly [has] more chance of making good money from our $1,500,000 prize pool than securing any commercial deals.”

Of course, everyone wants Phelps -- his star shines more brightly than any other celebrity at the moment, and will continue to glow for some time. Even before this year’s Olympics, Phelps had secured sponsorships with Visa, Nike, Speedo, Kellogg’s, Adidas, Rosetta Stone, Omega, and other large corporations. And he’s not going away. NBC has already announced its intention to televise the World Swimming Championships for the next three years, their primary motivation being to take advantage of viewers’ interest in Phelps’ exploits moving forward.

How should poker players and fans feel about these developments?

In the thread over on 2+2 one finds the usually high noise-to-signal ratio, but several posters are correctly identifying the development as “good for the game” (as they say). (One also learns there, incidentally, that Phelps apparently plays a lot of online poker.)

Why does poker -- or, more precisely, those who manage and direct large scale poker events like the NBC Heads-Up Championship or the APT -- want Michael Phelps? For the event organizers, Phelps’ presence instantly attracts the attention of non-poker fans, thereby enlarging their overall reach (very good for securing sponsors). For the poker community, Phelps identifying himself as a poker player instantly affords poker a kind of credibility in mainstream society. Which poker can use, frankly.

Who knows whether Phelps will pursue his poker ambitions or not. Even if he doesn’t, his acknowledgment on the world stage of an interest in poker most certainly helps the game’s proponents as they wage their battles in other (e.g., political, social, moral) contexts.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

“It’s no fun when Scotty got the gun”

Report CardLike most of you, I took a break from the Olympics this week to watch ESPN’s coverage of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. final table from the 2008 World Series of Poker (Event No. 45). As I wrote back in late June, I saw exactly zero hands of this heralded event when it happened. I was off at the beginning of it (Vera was in for her visit), then was live blogging other events for PokerNews during the remainder of its five-day run.

I do remember the night of the H.O.R.S.E. final table. Pojo and I were over in the Brasilia Room covering the long, long Day 2 of Event No. 49 (another one of the $1,500 no-limit hold’em events). It was getting close to dawn by the time we finally left, although we knew as we were heading out into the Rio parking lot that the H.O.R.S.E. was still going on. Too whipped to go check it out, though. (It would be another hour or so before it finally concluded.)

Every now and then during the night we’d click over to see what Mean Gene and Change100 were reporting and check those chip counts, just like everyone else. We also heard some stories during the night from those who’d been over there about how raucous a scene it was, and how Scotty Nguyen, the eventual champ, was pretty much blotto. “How is ESPN gonna edit this?” was a commonly heard question for the next day or two, with most agreeing it was going to be difficult to preserve the good reputation of the “Prince of Poker” given the extreme nature of his behavior.

The show was compelling, all right. And a bit jaw-dropping at times. Definitely not one I’d choose as a way of introducing poker to someone unfamiliar with the game.

Mean Gene says the night was “filled with bad energy,” and one definitely picks up on that atmosphere from the telecast. Gene also mentions that while he knew a lot about what went on that night, he “really had no idea that Michael DeMichele and Scotty had locked horns as they did.” I can definitely understand how some of what went on happened without our guys seeing or hearing it. When we reported on those final tables, we were stationed a good 12 feet away, too far to hear most table talk. (That wasn’t the case at other final tables, or on earlier days of tourneys, when we could get much closer and hear and see much more.)

Scotty Nguyen at the Event No. 45 Final Table, 2008 WSOPWatching Nguyen’s drunken descent from jovial to disagreeable to tactless to wretched (made to seem more rapid thanks to the necessarily condensed coverage) brought a few different memories and/or ideas to mind.

One was that experience we’ve all had at some point or another, being around someone whose state of drunkenness has removed him or her from the realm of communicativeness but not consciousness, and suddenly realizing the “nasty” has come out. Now your friend has suddenly become dangerous. “It’s no fun when Scotty got the gun, baby” was the line that most evoked that unpleasant feeling for me. Uhhh... somebody... make sure to get his keys, okay?

The show also reminded me of a couple of moments from the 2007 WSOP. One was early in the series, Event No. 24, the $3,000 Seven Card Stud Hi/Lo event won by Eli Elezra. Once Elezra and Scotty Nguyen had made it to heads up, the drinks began to flow. B.J. Nemeth described it as a “carnival atmosphere” in his reporting. That sounded like a mostly harmless, fun time in which two pros with a friendship and history (and a ton of side bets that dwarfed the prize pool) weren’t terribly concerned with who came out on top. I was also reminded of Scotty Nguyen’s disappointing blow up in the Main Event from last year in which some of that mean-spiritedness we saw more extensively displayed this week was captured and shown in ESPN’s coverage.

Finally, I found myself involuntarily comparing Nguyen’s behavior to other examples of what might be deemed poor sportsmanship. Perhaps not really a valid comparison, but I couldn’t help thinking along those lines, anyway.

Usain Bolt wins the men's 100-meter final at the 2008 OlympicsThis week the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, strongly criticized Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt for his behavior at the conclusion of the men’s 100-meter final, won by Bolt (who broke a world record in doing so). Well ahead of the field with twenty meters remaining, Bolt actually slowed his pace, looked to the crowd, and held his hands out to each side -- a bit of early celebrating. “That’s not the way we perceive being a champion,” said Rogge, adding that in his opinion Bolt “should show more respect for his competitors and... not make gestures like the one he made in the 100 meters.”

Unsurprisingly, Rogge’s comments have provoked a lot of debate. I’m frankly not too interested in judging either Nguyen or Bolt. I agree that good sportsmanship -- even in poker -- is a trait to be valued. I think also that highly-competitive endeavors like Olympic track and field or poker introduce inordinate stressors upon those who participate in them. And those participants, being human, necessarily react with wildly varying degrees of skill, judgment, and/or tact.

If you haven’t heard Tommy Angelo on this week’s Two Plus Two Pokercast, I highly recommend the interview. As Angelo does in his book Elements of Poker, in the interview he points out numerous truths (or “elements”) of poker a lot of us probably recognize but do not necessarily appreciate very much.

At one point in the discussion he characterizes the stressfulness of poker in a particularly accurate way. “Poker really tests us,” Angelo says. “We have a lot of hardship. We have not just the bad beats [to endure], but there’s money involved. And then there’s the boredom factor, and then you’ve got people there agitating you.... [E]very single possible problem that we encounter in our regular lives is... brought to bear in this little microcosm of the poker table.”

Angelo goes on to say how that makes poker an “opportunity to practice dealing with all that stuff” and thus be able to handle those challenges when they come up away from the poker table. But I think some folks -- including those who play at the highest levels and for the highest stakes -- don’t react that way. Rather, when presented with these immense stressors, they react erratically, perhaps in ways deemed inappropriate to others.

Or they react by trying to avoid ’em. Thus comes the cry, “Cocktails!” Or, in Nguyen’s case: “Where’re the f*cking cocktails, man? What’s up with this, man? We play this way forever?”

Not apologizing for anybody here. (Looks like Nguyen has done some of that.) Just sorting through some of the reasons why, perhaps, people act the way they do in these situations.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show, Episode 7: Fibber McGee and Molly

The latest installment of the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show podcast is up. It’s there in iTunes and I imagine should appear in other feeders as well if yr subscribed. You can also just click here to listen online, if you’d like.

Episode 7 begins with a an old Irish ballad by Frank Crumit about “Dolan’s Poker Party” which started out pleasantly but ended in chaos. Then comes Tim Peters with a very interesting overview of the history of poker books. Tim goes back to the late nineteenth century and discusses several of the highlights on up to the present, concluding with some thoughts about the future of poker book publishing.

There at the end Tim hits on an issue that came up last week as we contemplated Mason Malmuth’s worries over the forums affecting books sales over at 2+2. Tim invites listeners to email him at pokerbooks at mac dot com with their thoughts on the matter. You can also check out Tim’s website, The Literature of Poker, for his many reviews of poker books and other interesting poker-related items.

I follow Tim’s segment with an excerpt from Herbert O. Yardley’s The Education of a Poker Player (1957). Then, as always, the show ends with a “feature presentation,” an old time radio show presented in its entirety. This time it is a comedy, an episode of Fibber McGee and Molly called “Poker Game.” There are a lot of digressions, but the gist is Fibber wants to get away for a game of poker, but doesn’t want Molly to know about it.

As always, if you happen to listen in, don’t hesitate to let me know what you think either by commenting here, over on the show’s blog (where I list detailed “Show Notes” for each episode), or by sending an email to shamus at hardboiledpoker dot com. And if you haven’t heard any of the previous episodes, you can always go back and listen to them now. Since all of the shows feature stories about poker and/or gambling that aren’t necessarily time-bound, you should be able to pick ’em up anytime.

By the way, I received some very nice comments after the last episode and wanted to thank those who sent those. (Meant to say that on the show this time, but forgot.) Really appreciate those -- this is mostly just for fun, but it is definitely nice to hear it whenever someone else is getting a bit of fun out of it, too.


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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Life’s a Bluff

BluffingHad a couple of funny hands come up day before yesterday at my usual PLO game ($25 max.). Funny for me, anyway. (Warning -- brag post coming. Or self-implicating donkey post -- you decide.)

On the first, I was in the cutoff holding 5h4h9d8h. The player under the gun raised pot to $0.85, and it folded to me. I called, the button folded, and both blinds called as well. Pot $3.25 (after rake). The flop came Ah6s7s. Both blinds checked, and the preflop raiser without hesitation raised pot.

Now I hadn’t seen this fella raise before the flop a single time in the sixty-odd hands I’d played with him, and his very quick flop raise with an ace on board signalled pretty loudly what he had.

The flop was fairly intriguing for me, too, of course. There were something like 14 cards that would give me a nut straight (any 3, 4, 5, or 10), plus six more that would give me a less-than-nut straight (any 8 or 9). Of course, I had to eliminate six of those as “outs” because of the possible flush.

There was enough there to keep me interested, though, so I called the bet, and was relieved to see both blinds fold. Pot $9.45. The turn was the Qd, and again the UTG player quickly bet pot. I’m realizing now that not only do I have my straight outs, but it might not be too bad if a spade were to come on the end, either, as my opponent clearly seems worried about that prospect. I called, making the pot $28 or so, and sure enough the river was the 2s. My opponent instantly checked.

I had $15.90 left. I’d missed all my draws, but was almost 100% sure my opponent was sitting there with a set of aces and no flush. I was somewhat less sure, though, whether he’d fold his set.

That’s a big problem in these low stakes games, of course. This seemed a great place to bluff -- a bet would be a most reasonable conclusion to the “story” I’d been telling (that I was a flush-chasing dummy with little appreciation of pot odds). But would he be able to follow that story? Or even if he did, would he know to fold?

I didn’t take all this time to decide. For the story to make sense, I had to act quickly, and so bet my remaining stack with the same swiftness he’d been demonstrating with his flop and turn bets.

When he paused, I knew he didn’t have the flush. Then he typed “moeon” -- an attempt at “moron,” I think. He took a second to compose himself, then press his caps lock key in order to type “FK IN DK.” He then folded.

As I waited for the chips to slide my way, I readied the mouse to click “show.” Unfortunately my opponent had already left the table when I flashed my nine-high. No one else typed anything in response. However (and this is the second funny hand), I did get a very loose call down a few hands later when I’d picked up A-A-x-x, flopped a set, and had a dude with K-K-x-x somehow think he was good.

Speaking of getting something for nothing, the guys at Life’s a Bluff are running a little contest. In their latest “Random Questions” interview with Jeff Madsen, a woman appears briefly during the middle, interrupting (and participating in) the interview. Anyone who can identify the woman will win a free copy of Tom Schneider’s Oops! I Won Too Much Money, courtesy of Life’s a Bluff.

You can watch the video down on the right-hand column -- just click to play, or click twice to get to the larger YouTube version. Then, if you can identify the mystery woman, you can head over to the Life’s a Bluff forums to the contest thread for further details.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go see if I can enrage anymore low limit PLOers.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thriving vs. Surviving: John Phan & David Sklansky at the 2008 WSOP, Event No. 40 Final Table

Arnold Snyder, 'The Poker Tournament Formula 2'Mentioned last post Arnold Snyder’s The Poker Tournament Formula 2. An interesting read. I’d definitely recommend it to the serious tourney player.

After focusing primarily on fast tourneys in the first one (and talking a lot about position play), Snyder looks more specifically in PTF2 at tourneys with slower structures. In both books Snyder talks about how to calculate a given tournament’s “patience factor” and therefore rank the relative “skill level” required of the event. On his website, Snyder has among other articles and information a downloadable “Patience Factor / Skill Level Tournament Calculator” -- really just an Excel spreadsheet into which you can insert the relevant numbers to compute tourney speeds. (The sheet probably isn’t of much use to you if you haven’t read the books.)

I didn’t want to discuss the book too much, but rather just mention a couple of passages that come up in PTF2 and how they reminded me of a particular event I covered at this summer’s World Series of Poker, Event No. 40, the $2,500 Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw event.

Snyder begins his second tournament poker book with a discussion of John Phan, the highly-successful tourney player who has accumulated over $4 million in career earnings over the last decade. Snyder found himself playing with Phan a couple of times at the 2006 WSOP, and both times he experienced Phan’s especially aggressive, off-putting style of play with which he successfully accumulated huge chip stacks while punishing the table mercilessly. “Phan’s chip stack,” Snyder reflects, “combined with his aggressive style of play, literally had the rest of the table frozen, even though most of the players had very viable chip stacks in relation to the blinds.”

Snyder takes it upon himself to try to figure out what Phan was doing, and the result in large part is PTF2. He talks a lot in the early part of the book about a concept called “chip utility,” most simply defined as “the usefulness or serviceability of your chips.” Phan’s style not only won him chips, and thus gave him an increased “chip utility” at the table (i.e., he could now do more things with his chips), but it also reduced his opponents’ chip utility -- even those from whom he was not winning pots.

Reading this little tribute to “the Razor” made me think of the six-handed final table of Event No. 40, which began with Phan as the chip leader with nearly 300,000 chips. In fact, he’d led for a lot of the three-day tourney -- I know he was at the top of the leaderboard for most of the second day. Phan faced some tough opponents at this final table, including Gioi Luong, Robert Mizrachi, Ben Ponzi (who had one WSOP bracelet), and David Sklansky. Shun Uchida was the least decorated at the table, though he’d led the tourney at the end of Day 1 and would go on to finish second.

F-Train and I covered this one, and having watched Phan work the first couple of days we knew he’d be tough for the others to deal with at the final table. And indeed, he controlled the show for most of the night. If you read back through our coverage, you’ll see numerous references to Phan’s aggressive play (and table talk). I think we also mentioned in there somewhere the ten Coronas he ordered halfway through the night. I know I did in a post here, anyway.

John Phan winning Event No. 40 at the 2008 WSOPPhan won that tournament, taking his second bracelet of the series. Although I’m not too versed in 2-7 triple draw, it struck me as a game that suited Phan particularly well in that even though it was a limit tourney it afforded numerous opportunities for bluffing and/or intimidation -- especially if one had the chips to do so.

A lot of Snyder’s advice in both of his Poker Tournament books is offered independent of one’s actual cards -- in the fast tourneys he’s talking a lot about using position, and in the slower ones he focuses more squarely on using your chips. Of course, in a game like 2-7 Triple Draw, the actual cards tend to mean even less, with the betting and drawing really moving the action and forcing most of the decisions.

I mentioned David Sklansky was also at that final table. He’s the other reason why Snyder’s book made me think of Event No. 40.

Sklansky entered the final table with 78,000 chips, making him the short stack as play began with about 40 minutes left in Level 17 on Day 3. The blinds were 3,000/5,000 and limits 5,000/10,000 when play began, meaning he had not even eight big bets -- enough, perhaps, to play one hand (sort of) comfortably. Indeed, Sklansky had been nursing the short stack for pretty much all of Day 2, and we’d thought on numerous occasions we’d be reporting his elimination prior to the final table. But he hung on and made it. Finishing in the top six of an event in which 238 players entered is certainly an accomplishment.

We knew, though, Sklansky wouldn’t be winning this one. Not without cards, anyway. And sure enough, Sklansky’s stack dwindled down quickly. Just kind of randomly looking back through the blog, I see I wrote this post about one of the last hands from Level 17:
Sklansky Looking for Cards
David Sklansky raised from the hijack, Robert Mizrachi called from the button, and John Phan called from the small blind. On the first round, all took two cards, and all checked.

On the second draw, Phan stood pat, Sklansky took one, and Mizrachi took two. This time Phan bet, Sklansky called, and Mizrachi folded. Phan stood pat again on the last draw, while Sklansky took one again. Phan bet, and Sklansky folded. Phan has chipped up to 315,000.

Sklansky folded the next hand. On the next he was in the big blind, and had to fold after someone raised. He showed a king as he did.

Sklansky is down to 29,000.
Even in this limit tournament, Sklansky had just about zero “chip utility” of which to speak. As was the case with many hands we watched that night, we had no idea what cards players had on this one. But it kind of didn’t matter, other than the fact that whatever Sklansky drew on the third round, he wasn’t comfortable risking such a high percentage of his stack (the 10,000-chip big bet on the end) to see if he was good.

Sklansky's chips at the final table, Event No. 40, 2008 WSOPThen came the blinds, and Sklansky folded both times. He’d fold another orbit’s worth, then facing a three-bet in the big blind, would fold again.

Sklansky was down to 14,000. On his very last hand, he had just 12,000 to start, meaning even if he’d won the hand, he still would have just a couple of big bets with which to continue.

In his discussion of chip utility in PFT2, Snyder gets into it big time with Sklansky over the latter’s long-held argument for “reverse chip value theory” in tournaments -- what Snyder calls the “big boner” of tourney thinking dreamt up by the “math heads” (i.e., Sklansky and Mason Malmuth). It’s a provocative (and entertaining) discussion, one I think most tourney players should at least be curious about in that it forces one to rethink some of that so-called “received wisdom” we’ve had preached to us over the years.

This post has already run on too long, so I’m not going to get into the whole argument too deeply. I will summarize it, though. The “reverse chip value thory” -- which, Snyder points out, has informed a lot of tournament strategy writing over the last couple of decades -- is the idea that “the more chips a player has, the less each of his chips are worth,” and, conversely, “the fewer chips a player has, the more each of his chips are worth.”

This, of course, is the exact opposite of Snyder’s view. Snyder feels that the more chips you have, the more they are worth, insofar as they give one an increased chip utility. And recalling all of the utility Phan had with his chips there at the final table of Event No. 40 -- and how miserably little utility Sklansky had -- doesn’t contradict Snyder’s point here.

(This argument over the “reverse chip value theory” -- and other debates brought up by Snyder’s book -- continues over on Two Plus Two, with Sklansky predictably entering fray as well to fight back.)

Snyder speaks of how “so many players voluntarily surrender their utility” and instead revert to “survival-oriented strategies” in tournaments. It probably isn’t fair to say Sklansky had “surrendered” his utility by the time the final table started, although he certainly did somewhere along the way in Day 2, choosing rather just to survive than to do what was necessary to take all of his opponents’ chips.

Snyder ultimately characterizes a poker tournament as “a battle between the utility players and the survival players, and it’s not so much a battle as a rout.” From what I could tell, Event No. 40 of this year’s WSOP seemed to confirm that view.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Worryin’ About Hurryin’: The 2008 WSOP Main Event Final Table

Was catching up on some podcasts over the weekend and heard Gary Wise’s interview with David Rheem on Wise Hand Poker (the 8/13/08 episode). Rheem is one of the so-called “November Nine” who made the delayed final table of this year’s World Series of Poker Main Event. You might remember Rheem from his appearance at the Event No. 4 final table (the $5,000 Mixed Hold’em event) shown on ESPN a couple of weeks ago. He entered that final table the chip leader, but ended up going out in fifth.

You might also recall back in July an article appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel reporting Rheem had an outstanding warrant in Hollywood, Florida for apparently having failed to appear in court in 2003 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge. Less widely circulated was a subsequent report that the 2003 warrant is apparently no longer valid.

I had heard Rheem interviewed once before on the Two Plus Two Pokercast (Episode 32, 7/14/08), but on Wise’s show Rheem mentioned something new. When asked his thoughts regarding the 117-day delay before the WSOP ME final table, Rheem admitted that when he began the tournament, he had no idea such a delay was scheduled.

According to Rheem, following Day 2 he had a decent-sized chip stack and was discussing the tournament with some friends. “They were, like, ‘you know, once you make the final table, you make a three-month break,’ and then, you know, I almost lost money on it because I didn’t believe them. I was like ‘I’ll bet you money that you don’t!’ And then when their arm was out ready to shake my hand, I knew they were serious.” Rheem said he then went to the Tournament Director to confirm, and that’s when he first found out about the delay.

There was no hurry, I guess. Not like it really mattered on Day 2.

Rheem seems pretty likable. So do his fellow final tablists Dennis Phillips, whom I heard interviewed on Phil Gordon’s The Poker Edge (7/24/08), and Craig Marquis, who appeared on The Poker Edge as well (8/7/08). Listening to their interviews got me wondering about where things stood heading into that final table, still nearly three months away.

Play stopped in the early morning hours of July 15th with exactly 21 minutes and 50 seconds left in Level 33. That means these guys played over 65 hours of poker to get to this point in the tourney. The blinds are currently 120,000/240,000 with 30,000 antes. Here’s what each player will have in front of him when the first hand gets dealt on November 9th:

2008 WSOP Main Event final tableOn the World Series of Poker website, there’s an article dated July 15th that purports to give final table seat assignments, but that information is incorrect. As Dennis Phillips mentioned on The Poker Edge, they will be drawing for seats five minutes before play begins on Nov. 9th.

I listed the number of big blinds each player currently has as well as the “M” or ratio of one’s stack to the current total of blinds and antes -- i.e., the “cost per round” figure popularized by Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie in their Harrington on Hold’em series.

On the most recent episode of The Poker Edge, Phil Gordon suggested that “the pace of play at that final table is going to be ridiculously slow.” He was referring to the fact that when it came to players like Marquis -- whom he said was “not exactly short-stacked, not exactly desperate yet” -- “you’ve got 40 big blinds, there’s no hurry.”

Indeed, if one looks at the “M” ratio of the nine players, a lot of them are still in that “Green Zone” (an “M” of 20 or higher) in which Harrington and Robertie say “all moves are available.” However, Arnold Snyder, in his discussion of “chip utility” in The Poker Tournament Formula 2, would certainly disagree with the notion that “there’s no hurry” when one is down to 40 big blinds.

For Snyder “full utility” is only possible when one has 100 big blinds or more, a situation only Phillips and Demidov currently enjoy. That, says Snyder, “is the minimum stack size required for unhampered post-flop play, including information bets and more advanced moves on later streets or against more aggressive deep-stacked opponents.” Snyder describes a stack size of 60 big blinds as still “competitive,” though not “fully functional.” Stacks of 30-60 big blinds have “moderate utility,” and below 30 makes one’s utility “low.”

Of concern here for players other than Phillips and Demidov is the fact that 20 minutes after they start play on November 9th -- i.e., probably less than one orbit -- the blinds and antes will be moving up to 150,000/300,000 plus 40,000. That means unless a player like Marquis picks up a pot within those first few hands, he’s down to 30 big blinds and “low utility” (according to Snyder’s rubric).

Gordon’s comment reminded me that he had said something similar last year at the start of the 2007 final table. Indeed, that final table also began with 120,000/240,000 blinds and antes of 30,000, with roughly the same total number of chips in play. After the first hand of that final table -- in which Jerry Yang raised to 1.4 million from under the gun, was called by a late position player, then took the pot with a big bet on the flop -- Ali Nejad spoke of the 630,000 that was in the pot before each hand began and how that was a decent-sized prize to go after.

“Yeah, but the blinds are very small in relation to the stack sizes here,” answered Gordon. “There’s not a single player at the table who’s ready to just push under the gun or raise all in…. It would surprise me greatly -- unless there are just some huge hands, like aces versus kings or something like that -- to see any elimination here in the first three or four hours of this tournament.”

Anybody remember where we were after four hours last year? No less than four players -- Philip Hilm, Lee Watkinson, Lee Childs, and Hevad Khan -- had already busted.

We’ve a long time to wait, still. But I tend to believe we’re probably gonna see some serious hurryin’ once we get there.

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