Friday, August 31, 2012

More on Moneyball

'Moneyball' (2003) by Michael LewisI was writing last Friday about having picked up Moneyball by Michael Lewis, the 2003 book in which Lewis engagingly discusses changing attitudes toward the evaluation of talent in baseball, focusing largely on the ahead-of-the-curve thinking and decisions made by the Oakland A’s during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Last week I was recommending the book to poker players, mentioning just a few ways observations shared in the book tended to overlap with issues and strategy we often associate with poker. I quoted a passage appearing early on characterizing the “old school” of talent evaluation in baseball and pointed out some obvious parallels to poker.

Having now finished Moneyball, I’m looking back at many other passages illustrating all sorts of different connections with poker. Now and then Lewis explicitly evokes gambling and casino games -- and even poker a couple of times -- such as when he characterizes the non-method method employed by many baseball teams when it comes to drafting players. Time and time again, teams with bad records (who thus get to draft early) squander their picks on high school players who more often than not won’t pan out as big leaguers.

Lewis characterizes such high-risk plays thusly: “The worst teams in baseball, the teams that can least afford for their draft to go wrong, have walked into the casino, ignored the odds, and made straight for the craps tables.” Meanwhile the Oakland A’s brain trust don’t “think of the draft as a crapshoot” but operate more like “card counters at the blackjack tables.”

That said, there isn’t a lot of specific reference to poker or gambling games in the book. But the parallels are everywhere.

Reading on the Kindle allows you to highlight passages just by running a finger over them. Then later you can go back and look only at those passages (in a folder called “My Clippings”). I kind of went overboard with the highlighting with Moneyball, actually. But I’ve spent a little time sifting through my “clippings” from the book in order to organize them under six poker-related headings I thought I’d share here.

Again, take all this as a general recommendation of the book as well as an implicit argument about the many ways poker and baseball are alike.

The Mental Game

The Mental GameA running theme in the book concerns how baseball requires mental toughness in addition to physical ability.

Oakland general manager Billy Beane’s playing career sounds as though it was cut short considerably thanks to his being unable to control his emotions and not avoid going on “tilt” after things didn’t go his way. “Emotions were always such a big part of whatever he did,” says Lewis. “A bad at bat or two and he was done for the third and fourth at bats of the game.”

A contrast is drawn between Beane and Lenny Dykstra, the Phillies star who perhaps wasn’t as physically gifted as Beane but had a significant mental edge. “Lenny didn’t let his mind screw him up,” writes Lewis. “The physical gifts required to play pro ball were, in some ways, less extraordinary than the mental ones.”

In fact, Lewis speculates that Beane’s fascination with “sabermetrics” and new ways of analyzing the game and evaluating talent stems in large part from his mental struggles as a player. “Beane tilts easily,” Lewis writes, “kind of an explanation for/cause of his fascination with ‘objective’ evidence.”

Being Results-Oriented

Being Results-OrientedSpeaking of the “mental game,” relatively early on Lewis quotes a psychologist named Harvey Dorfman who authored a book called The Mental Game of Baseball. Dorfman actually worked for the A’s at one point prior to Beane’s tenure there. Among other observations, Dorfman makes one about the type of player who “‘sees himself exclusively in his statistics. If his stats are bad, he has zero self-worth.’”

Of course, in baseball it isn’t just players letting their numbers influence their ideas of themselves. Those in charge of evaluating talent and trading for or signing players are also heavily swayed by such numbers, and thus let results (i.e., players’ stats) affect their decisions. That’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself; however, it can be a big one if the stats are being misinterpreted.

For example, Bill James (featured heavily in Moneyball, especially during the first half) is quoted at one point complaining way back in the 1980s about how batting average gets overvalued in baseball. “‘I find it remarkable that, in listing offenses, the league will list first -- meaning best -- not the team which scored the most runs, but the team with the highest batting average’” says James. “‘It should be obvious that the purpose of an offense is not to compile a high batting average.’”

Thus did James come up with a new stat -- “runs created” -- that was a better indicator of a player’s offensive worth. Others followed James to come up with still more ways to isolate skill from luck in baseball, and while I won’t bore you with all of the examples I will say all tend to challenge traditional measures of achievement by focusing more on players’ ability to perform in ways that maximize the team’s chance of success.

As Paul DePodesta, Beane’s assistant, puts it: “‘It’s looking at processes rather than outcomes.... Too many people make decisions based on outcomes rather than processes.’”

It is perhaps easier in poker than in baseball to distinguish processes from outcomes. We can often tell when we’ve played a hand well yet gotten unlucky, or played a hand badly but managed to hit a two-outer and win anyway. What we do with that knowledge, though, is what makes us better or worse poker players.


AppearancesInnovations introduced by the Oakland A’s regarding drafting players, organizing rosters and line-ups, and in-game decisions looked weird to those unfamiliar with the underlying reasoning. But the A’s staff didn’t care, and the book kind of promotes those guys as fearless iconoclasts often unfazed by criticisms of those unaware of the method behind their seeming madness.

A good example of the lack of care about appearances is the shunning of “textbook” baseball plays like moving a runner over with a sacrifice bunt, stealing bases, or using the hit and run. “Bunts, stolen bases, hit and runs -- they all were mostly self-defeating and all had a common theme: fear of public humiliation,” Lewis explains. He then quotes Pete Palmer, an engineer-turned-sabermetrician, pointing out how “‘Managers tend to pick a strategy that is least likely to fail rather than pick a strategy that is most efficient.... The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move.’”

Poker presents us with similar spots quite often, where we avoid making a play that is in fact correct out of fear that it may look strange or incorrect to others. Particularly when it comes to unorthodox or “innovative” plays that go against “received wisdom,” some of us might in such cases resist making what we know is the best move.

Under this heading I’ll also put the extreme emphasis on drawing walks that is part of the “moneyball” strategy. Reading about the reasons why walks should be valued frequently made me think about folding in poker, another action that is perhaps undervalued by some because of how it looks -- surrendering, not fighting, and thus appearing weak.

But such patience reaps great rewards both in baseball and in poker. As Lewis explains, “Any ball out of the strike zone was an opportunity for the batter to shift the odds in his favor. All you had to do was: not swing!”

Game Theory

Game TheorySpecific discussion of game theory comes up now and then in Moneyball, and again the potential application to poker is obvious. A lot of times the idea arises when talking about the confrontation between pitcher and batter, a duel that in many ways resembles a heads-up situation in poker.

A reader taxdood commented on that earlier post and mentioned the great description of an at-bat between Oakland first baseman Scott Hatteberg and Jamie Moyer, both of whom might be described as above-average when it comes to using game theory to try to “level” opponents. It’s a great scene, with Lewis doing a neat job describing the head games going on between the two.

I love the moment near the end of the at-bat when Moyer steps off the mound and says directly to Hatteberg “‘Just tell me what you want.’” Hatteberg has no response to that, it being unprecedented for a pitcher to ask directly what pitch and/or location he desires. Such a tactic reminded me of the poker player asking an opponent if he or she wants him to call or fold, or similarly direct queries that can play an important role in how the game is played.

I also like how Hatteberg describes someone like Moyer in terms that might remind us of a very savvy poker player who is able to flummox opponents with clever, hard-to-decipher betting patterns. “A good pitcher... creates a kind of parallel universe,” explains Hatteberg. “It doesn’t matter how hard he throws, in absolute terms, so long as he is able to distort the perception of the hitters.” The sort of thing can make players make mistakes, in baseball and in poker.

(Hatteberg is described elsewhere as loving to chat up opponents reaching first base, something Lewis explicitly suggests is “like chatting at the poker table.”)

Meanwhile you have those in baseball who like inexperienced poker players are oblivious to “leveling” or other “game theory”-type tactics. As another player, John Mabry, points out, “‘Some of the guys who are the best are the dumbest.... I don’t mean the dumbest. I mean they don’t have a thought. No system.... Guys can’t set you up. You have no pattern. You can’t even remember your last at bat.’”

Playing by the Numbers vs. Playing by “Feel”

Playing by the Numbers vs. Playing by 'Feel'The debate explored in the book between the old way of looking at baseball and the new -- what Lewis in a postscript refers to as “baseball’s religious war” -- breaks down in various ways, but one way of characterizing it is a conflict between “faith”-like, instinctive responses unconfirmed by concrete evidence running up against cold, rational facts.

“In human behavior there was always uncertainty and risk,” says Lewis. “The goal of the Oakland front office was simply to minimize the risk. Their solution wasn’t perfect, it was just better than the hoary alternative, rendering decisions by gut feeling.”

Such passages make me think of arguments raised by some against those getting too carried away with letting ideas about the math of poker overwhelm other ways of looking at the game. Obviously you want to try to find a good balance between the numbers and “feel,” but it sounds like in baseball there has existed (and perhaps still exists) a strong, influential majority in charge of running teams who have essentially done it by “feel” alone for many, many years.

Luck vs. Skill

Luck vs. SkillThere is so much in Moneyball concerning the relative balance of luck and skill in baseball, I’m going to cut short summarizing the references if only to keep this post from getting any longer than it already is.

I talked about one instance in a “Pop Poker” piece for PokerListings this week, if you’re curious. The article is called “On Luck, Skill, Hail Marys and Moneyball,” and brings up one example of pitchers “running good” when it comes to balls being put in play and resulting in outs rather than hits.

At one point Lewis quotes another sabermetrician (Pete Palmer) estimating that “the average difference in baseball due to skill is about one run a game, while the average difference due to luck is about four runs a game.” If true, that sounds like luck holds a lot more sway in a given game than it does in, say, a session of poker, doesn’t it?

I’ll refer to one other interesting example of luck in baseball -- the postseason, which Lewis refers to as “a giant crapshoot” in which luck really does affect outcomes greatly and thus can “frustrate rational management because, unlike the long regular season, they [the playoffs] suffer from the sample size problem.”

That characterization of the relationship between the playoffs to the regular season in baseball makes me think of final tables in poker tournaments where it sometimes happens that after hours (or days) of skill mattering more than luck, the blinds have risen to a point where luck predominates. In other words, at the most crucial moment when ultimate winners and losers are determined, the game
becomes “a crapshoot.”

There are many other gems in the book I might’ve included here, including what I consider a highly persuasive argument on behalf of the importance of studying or writing about baseball. That is to say, Lewis (along with many of those whom he talks to or quotes) does a good job justifying his object of inquiry being worthwhile, and does so in ways that remind me why poker is also “more than just a game” and thus similarly worth studying and writing about.

But I’ll stop here and let those of you who haven’t read Moneyball go check it out for yourselves. Or for those who have read it, I’ll invite you perhaps go back and check it out again with an eye toward all of the many ways the story and its characters speak to poker players.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012


Yesterday I left the house for a few hours without my phone.Yesterday I left the house for a few hours without my phone.

Like just about everyone these days, I have a “smart” phone (an iPhone). And like just about everyone else I carry it with me pretty much everywhere I go, checking it constantly for emails, text messages, the nonstop stream of missives by those I follow on Twitter, and so on.

I didn’t mean to leave my phone at home. It usually gets included in the small number of items jammed into my pockets whenever I leave, along with my wallet, keys, and iPod. But somehow I managed to leave off grabbing my phone this time and so found myself on the highway and without it, driving out to meet Vera at the farm where she rides several times a week.

Goes without saying I found myself a lot less distracted during the time I was away from home. At the farm I paid more attention to enjoying the unseasonably mild weather. I noticed the sun low on the horizon, a bright blur behind the gathering clouds. Birds chirped. Horses whinnied. And the wind blew through the branches of the large trees surrounding the property, quiet hints of a possible late afternoon storm.

At one point I watched Vera from far away walking her horse back to the pasture, thinking how striking the scene appeared with Vera dressed in light clothes, her dark horse trotting beside her, the green beneath, and the grayish blue above.

I thought it would make a great picture. But I didn’t take one, of course. I’d forgotten my phone.

Further musings ensued, all more or less revolving around the irony suggested by the fact that if I had brought the device with which I could’ve taken a picture, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the scene which had looked worth capturing with a photograph.

Soon enough I was back home. And not long after I’d gotten back, I was checking in once more on the messages and everything else.

The poker world hadn’t changed too much during those few hours. Some were reporting on their fluctuating chip stacks here and there. A few were talking further about the Republicans and that bit in their platform supporting the prohibition of online gambling (discussed here yesterday). And I saw something about Howard Lederer’s lawyers wanting to put into play that recent U.S. v. Dicristina ruling that poker wasn’t illegal gambling as defined by the Illegal Gambling Business Act (as reported on today by PokerFuse).

But overall not a lot was happening. A bit of static, but no storms.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Platforms and Parties

The 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, FloridaWas following some of the buzz on my Twitter feed yesterday regarding the Republican Party’s national convention which has gotten underway down in Tampa, Florida. The Dems will be having theirs next week right close to me in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Since I follow a lot of poker people, it wasn’t surprising to see some discussing the GOP’s 2012 platform and its statement of position regarding online gambling. A platform, of course, is that often lengthy statement of a party’s positions on all sorts of subjects, kind of like a manifesto in which one finds included a long list of ideals for which a party purports to stand. Yesterday the Republican delegates in Tampa ratified their party’s platform for 2012.

The 2012 GOP platform is about 30,000 words long, up a bit from the 2008 platform (about 24,000 words), though shorter than the massive 2004 one (around 48,000 words). Forty-five of those words in this year’s GOP platform concern online gambling. That is to say, there’s a lot else on the party’s plate at the moment.

The statement about online gambling appears in a category of items falling under the heading of “Renewing American Values to Build Healthy Families, Great Schools and Safe Neighborhoods.” It’s the first paragraph of a short section called “Making the Internet Family-Friendly,” and goes as follows:

“Millions of Americans suffer from problem or pathological gambling that can destroy families. We support the prohibition of gambling over the Internet and call for reversal of the Justice Department’s decision distorting the formerly accepted meaning of the Wire Act that could open the door to Internet betting.”

The second and last paragraph in the section then discusses protecting children against online predators and sex offenders and stopping child pornography.

When I saw folks discussing this paragraph on my Twitter feed last night, I thought how the mention of wanting to prohibit online gambling wasn’t anything new as far as GOP platforms were concerned. I knew a similar statement appeared in the part of the 2008 platform, too. I decided to look back to see just where the references to online gambling first began appearing in GOP platforms.

There’s a neat website where you can find all of each major parties’ platforms going back to the mid-19th century, as well as platforms for other parties, too, thus making it easier to find out these things.

2008 GOP Platform

The Republican PartyIn 2008, the GOP’s statement about online gambling appeared in the category “Protecting Our Families” as its own short little section, coming just after “Stopping Online Child Predators and Ending Child Pornography” and before “Ridding the Nation of Criminal Street Gangs.” In fact, the statement is identical to what appears in the 2012 platform except for the additional reference to the recent memo from the DOJ regarding the Wire Act:

“Millions of Americans suffer from problem or pathological gambling that can destroy families. We support the law prohibiting gambling over the Internet.” (Sounds like “the law” might refer to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, even if that is not what the UIGEA really is. Or, if not that, another law that might be used to argue such a prohibition to be in place.)

2004 GOP Platform

In that novella-length platform of 2004, the reference comes not in the category titled “Strengthening Our Communities,” but rather in another one, “Building an Innovative, Globally Competitive Economy.” It strangely arises in a section on “Higher Education Affordability” that mostly concerns college costs. Here’s how it goes there:

“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.” Pretty much the same, although “the law” here is referred to as “legislation” (i.e., there was less confidence such a prohibition was already on the books?).

I suppose we could conclude from the different location of the statement that if we go back a decade or so, the issue of online gambling was for some more closely connected to sports gambling, especially among student-athletes. Later it would get moved over next to street gangs, child pornography, and so on.

2000 GOP Platform

Online gambling was mentioned by the Republican Party in its platform way back in 2000, too, with what amounts to the first-draft version of the statement that has remained in the platform ever since. This time the reference comes amid a grab bag of items appearing under the heading of “Justice and Safety,” with the reference to sports betting among student-athletes again part of the statement:

“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.”

No change in the wording, then, from 2000 to 2004. And looking back, the statement has been there pretty much since shortly after online gambling was invented.

1996 GOP Platform

No references to gambling of any kind in the 1996 GOP platform. In fact, there’s just one brief mention of the internet, which had yet to grow into such an important part of our culture. “The Internet today is the most staggering example of how the Information Age can and will enhance the lives of Americans everywhere,” goes the reference. “To further this explosion of newfound freedoms and opportunities, privacy, through secured communications, has never been more important.”

There is talk of “internet freedom” in the 2012 GOP Platform, too, with a more thorough statement about how the web “offers a communications system uniquely free from government intervention” and how the party intends to “remove regulatory barriers that protect outdated technologies.” There’s also discussion of individual freedoms and the need to “ensure that personal data receives full constitutional protection from government overreach.”

The Democratic PartyI took a peek at the Democrats’ recent platforms as well. Not seeing any mention of gambling in those -- online or otherwise -- as far as I can tell.

There are statements about the need to “protect the Internet's traditional openness and [to] ensure that it remains a dynamic platform for free speech, innovation, and creativity,” as well as calls “to identify and prosecute those who exploit the Internet to try to harm children.” But there’s nothing about either prohibiting any forms of gambling or ensuring that adult citizens who wish to have the freedom to gamble are allowed to do so.

I kind of feel like sorting through the platforms for brief mentions of online gambling like this is a mostly trivial pursuit. Sure, the platforms give us a general idea how elected officials might position themselves and thus cast their votes. But when it comes to online gambling, the many related issues are obviously much too complex to be covered in a sentence or two. And in truth, individual legislators are often motivated by wildly disparate purposes in their favoring or disproving of Americans playing poker or participating in other forms of gambling on the internet.

In other words, which party a legislator belongs to is obviously meaningful, but perhaps less so when it comes to online gambling than with other issues over which Republicans and Democrats are more obviously divided.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Linking Out

For today’s post I thought I’d compile a few interesting poker-related reads (and one listen) from the last few days.

crAAKKerFirst off, Grange95 wrote an excellent post following last week’s ruling by a federal district court judge that poker was a game “predominated by skill rather than chance” and thus not in the judge’s view to be regarded as gambling as defined by the Illegal Gambling Business Act (IGBA)

Grange95’s post takes the form of outlining various consequences of the ruling, along the way summarizing its more salient points in a manner we non-lawyer types can follow. His conclusion? It is indeed a landmark ruling, and one that will play a role in future chapters of the “luck-vs.-skill” debate. However, its scope is limited and there still exist federal and state laws other than the IGBA with which poker’s proponents will have to contend.

Check out “United States v. Dicristina -- A Win for Poker Players (with an Asterisk)” for more.

Warren BuffetThe Forbes site provided yet another interesting poker-related piece yesterday, a feature describing the high-dollar home game (of sorts) hosted by the much-heralded, highly influential investor Warren Buffet.

In “Inside Warren Buffet’s Private Poker Game,” Randall Lane describes what is in fact an annual tournament hosted by Buffet in which a select group competes for a prize pool worth half a million dollars. Lane himself played in the tournament this past June along with a few high-profile folks, some of whom were bounties in the tourney.

The article mostly focuses on Lane’s own performance (he went out early), and in fact it sounds like Buffet isn’t really much of a poker aficionado (he’s more into bridge). Still, kind of an interesting look at poker being played by a different cast of characters than the ones we usually follow.

'The Poker Show' with Jesse MayJesse May (Shut Up and Deal) returns this week with another episode of his podcast, “The Poker Show.” It’s been about six weeks since May’s last show back in early July (near the end of the WSOP), making the appearance of a new one notable.

In episode 39 (dated August 27), May talks to a couple of hot German players, “Mad Marvin” Rettenmaier and Dominik Nitsche. Rettenmaier, of course, just comes off an unprecedented feat on the World Poker Tour, having won the last two main events at the Bellagio (the $25K World Championship that ended Season X) and in Cyprus (the kickoff to Season XI). Nitsche, meanwhile, is also having a good year, including winning a bracelet in Event No. 59 at the WSOP, a $1,000 no-limit hold’em event that I happened to help cover.

Both are interesting characters besides being great players, and of course May is always good with the questions, so if poker podcasts are your thing, the show is worth a listen. (EDIT [added 6/10/14]: Sorry, had to remove the link to the show per a request from bwinparty.)

Viktor 'Isildur1' BlomFinally, I’ve recommended posts before by Phil Galfond on his personal blog, and he’s come up with another very good one that should probably interest anyone reading this blog. This time Galfond has written a thoughtful evaluation of one of his most celebrated opponents in the high-stakes online games, Viktor “Isildur1” Blom.

I had a chance this past summer to watch Blom play for most of Day 2 of the World Series of Poker Main Event, reporting on a number of his hands for PokerNews while gathering some thoughts of what it was like to watch the online superstar play live. I shared those impressions here in a post called “Blogging Blom,” although obviously what I saw and related was very limited, the imperfect impressions of an amateur watching the action from a few feet away.

In “Viktor Blom: The Man, The Myth, The Legend,” Galfond provides a more intimate look at both Blom the player and Blom the person. He assesses Blom’s talent (considerable, though with certain flaws), his character and personality (charming, fun-loving), and his prospects going forward (promising, though uncertain). Check it out.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Culture in the Cards

Culture in the CardsToday in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class we will be talking in part about poker’s prehistory, including discussing various games that can be called poker’s precursors such as as nas, mus, brag, poch, and primiera. Next class we’ll get to poque, the French game that most believe is the most immediate forerunner to poker, and then into the 19th century and the early days of actual poker in the U.S.

Like poque, most of these earlier games come from Europe, although the story of poker’s prehistory also extends elsewhere, including the far East. Today we’ll talk about the invention of playing cards, too, and how in all of these different countries the cards tended to incorporate reference to the producing culture.

Thus do you see weird things like coins and cups and scimitars and flowers and plants and polo sticks and all sorts of other meaningful items printed on the cards, depending on the country. When the suits came about, they, too, had symbolic significance, with the hearts sometimes representing the church, the diamonds the merchant class, spades the military, and clubs the importance of agriculture/farmers.

In France came the “valet” (knave or jack), “dame” (queen), and “roi” (king), figures which ultimately would appear as the face cards in most decks. Once the 52-card deck became established, kings and queens remained even in countries where there was no royalty to speak of like the U.S.

I was in the middle of reviewing this material yesterday when I saw a short piece over on the Slate site l reporting from the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. The report shared the story of a fellow named Matthew Sanchez (not the embattled New York Jets quarterback) who was there this past weekend as a vendor at a rally for the candidate Ron Paul.

Sanchez has created a new deck of playing cards he refers to as “The Official American Standard Playing Cards” in which he’s incorporated all sorts of U.S.-themed symbolism and/or highly literal reference to various aspects of American government and history.

“After 236 years, America should have her own playing cards that represent her founding and her republic,” explains Sanchez in a short video as he introduces his set. Here it is, if you’re curious:

It’s a bit confusing to follow (e.g., instead of the usual suits, there is “faith, declaration, revolution, and unity”), and all of the text on the cards seems a bit much, too (e.g., the Bill of Rights are printed on cards 1-10). Gentlemen, Ladies, and Patriots replace the jacks, queens, and kings; thus there are no royals, which Sanchez says are “Un-American.”

Don’t really expect Sanchez to get very far with his deck, the creation of which sounds like it might have been motivated not simply by patriotism but by a kind of isolationist impulse -- i.e., the deck provides an occasion to voice certain thoughts about the U.S. needing to distinguish itself from or break ties with other countries. Or maybe in the context of poker, there’s an idea in here somewhere to “take back” the game somehow, I don’t know.

In any case, Sanchez does follow in a long tradition when it comes to the conscious incorporation of cultural symbols and messages in the manufacture of playing cards. I may have to mention him and his “Official American Standard Playing Cards” in class today, if only to reinforce the idea that in most cultures, the games people play take on all sorts of added significance.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

More Than Meets the Eye: Moneyball and Poker

'Moneyball' (2003) by Michael LewisLast Christmas Vera got me a Kindle. Since then I’ve managed to read a half-dozen titles or so on the device, although whenever I find myself desirous to pick up a new read I still more often than not choose a used hard copy (often cheap) over an electronic one (sometimes cheap, sometimes not).

For instance, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (1999) was recently recommended to me, and I ended up ordering a used paperback rather than go for the Kindle version. It’s a cool read, a very inventive and smart example of “hard-boiled” fiction. Also shares some of the same territory I tried to cover in my Same Difference (which is why Lethem’s book was recommended to me).

With Amazon Prime, though, I get to take a book out of the “Kindle Lending Library” each month, and for August I chose Moneyball (2003) by Michael Lewis. That’s the best-seller telling the story of general manager Billy Beane guiding the Oakland A’s to success on the field despite spending relatively little on salaries via innovative methods of evaluating talent. (A well-regarded film adaptation starring Brad Pitt appeared last year.)

The book is about more than just Beane, though, relating the whole history of so-called “sabermetrics” or the analysis of baseball statistics pioneered by Bill James and others. I’ve written here about James and his Baseball Abstract before, noting how as a young person I was fairly fascinated by James and his unique way of crunching baseball’s endless numbers to come up with new and different ways of interpreting what exactly is happening when we watch a baseball game.

I’m about halfway through Moneyball and so far am appreciating Lewis’ way of telling the story as well as his understanding of the historical context of baseball, generally speaking, and sabermetrics in particular. And -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- I’m finding myself struck time and again with how the question of evaluating players’ talent in baseball overlaps with similar questions about the skill of poker players.

The parallels are seemingly endless. In both cases there exists objective evidence from which come ideas about performers’ skills. We see poker players win hands. We see baseball players make plays. And in both cases stats are produced which can be later examined and from which further conclusions might be drawn.

But there’s mystery in both cases, too, as well as other factors that cloud our judgment, making it harder to understand the significance of, say, a baseball player earning a walk or a poker player making a well-timed three-bet and forcing a fold.

Here’s just one short passage from early in Moneyball illustrating three different points of comparison. It comes in the context of characterizing how scouts tended to evaluate talent prior to the rise of sabermetrics and advances in technology that enabled a lot more depth and breadth when it came to statistical analyses:
“There was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who actually played the game to generalize wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn’t. There was also a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy’s most recent performance: what he did last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly -- but not lastly -- there was the bias toward what people saw with their own eyes, or thought they had seen. The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality. There was a lot you couldn’t see when you watched a baseball game.”
The parallels to poker here are obvious. Most of us interpret others’ decisions at the poker table by comparing them to our own, sometimes to our detriment. Our views of others are also often swayed heavily by what happened recently, with what happened on the last hand often given undue importance. And there are many examples in poker where we see something clearly yet interpret it wrongly.

That latter point becomes kind of a theme in the book, what Beane comes to refer to as being “victimized by what we see.” The work of James and others helped Beane realize that “the naked eye was an inadequate tool for learning what you needed to know to evaluate baseball players and baseball games.”

Poker has seen its own version of “sabermetrics” emerge over the last decade with the rise of online poker and tracking programs like PokerTracker and Hold’em Manager that yield all sorts of additional information about players’ tendencies, performance, and -- if interpreted correctly -- skill. Ideas that in some cases challenge the received wisdom of the old guard, represented in Moneyball by the fraternity of old scouts whose methods were challenged by Beane and his statistical-minded cohorts.

I’m glad I chose Moneyball as my Kindle read for this month. I suspect other poker players -- especially those who happen also to be baseball fans -- would like it, too.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

More on Luck vs. Skill in Poker: Two New Academic Studies Reach Opposite Conclusions

Continuing with this “luck-vs.-skill” debate in poker mentioned yesterday in the context of that Brooklyn federal judge’s ruling that Texas hold’em did not constitute illegal gambling as defined by the IGBA, I’m seeing two different academic studies appearing this month attempting to tackle the same issue.

One study comes from a trio of economists working at the Erasmus School of Economics located at Erasmus University in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Their paper, “Beyond Chance? The Persistence of Performance in Online Poker,” examines a fairly large database of online poker hands to conclude “that players whose earlier profitability was in the top (bottom) deciles perform better (worse) and are substantially more likely to end up in the top (bottom) performance deciles of the following time period.” Such “persistence of performance” thus leads the researchers to conclude “that skill is an important factor in online poker.”

Meanwhile, a second study by another team of researchers working at the Institute of Psychology and Cognition Research at the University of Bremen in Germany arrives at a different conclusion. The four authors’ study, titled “Is Poker a Game of Skill or Chance? A Quasi-Experimental Study,” is due to appear in the September 2012 issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies, although it was made available online last week. Analyzing a much more modest sample size, the Bremen folks determined that “card distribution was the decisive factor for successful poker playing” rather than players’ skill levels, and thus their “findings indicate that poker should be regarded as a game of chance.”

The study by the Dutch group is a 32-page first draft that has been submitted to a journal for possible publication, and is available online for anyone to read at the Social Science Research Network site (click here or click the study’s title above). Meanwhile, the Germans’ full article can only be purchased unless you happen to have an academic affiliation and your school or university subscribes to the journal. Luckily for me I do have such an affiliation and my university does subscribe, so I’ve had a chance to download and read the 16-page study.

I’m neither an economist nor a psychologist, and so have to admit some of the methodology employed in both studies is a bit foreign to me. Still, I was able to follow both arguments reasonably well, and so thought I’d try to provide summaries of each here.

“Beyond Chance? The Persistence of Performance in Online Poker”

'Beyond Chance? The Persistence of Performance in Online Poker' by Rogier J.D. Potter van Loon, Martijn J. Van den Assem, and Dennie Van DolderThe Dutch economists begin by providing some context for their study, including explaining how both the popularity of online poker (and live poker) worldwide and ongoing battles over its legality inspired the study. They show a keen awareness of other research, too, including what behavioral research has found regarding decision-making in poker.

Thus do they begin with an understanding that players bring varying degrees of skill to poker, but also that players behave in ways that affect their performance, too (e.g., overestimating expectations, letting results affect decision-making, etc.). I’m glossing over specifics here, but mean to point out that I’m convinced the researchers appreciate the complexity of poker and how the skill component of the game involves a lot more than understanding probabilities, but also being able to manage one’s emotions and discipline oneself to make sound decisions consistently.

They go on to allude to other luck-vs.-skill studies of poker, including the one co-authored by Steven “Freakonomics” Levitt last year, positioning theirs as being methodologically similar to empirical studies like the one Levitt helped perform.

The researchers then describe how they analyzed a database of 76.7 million hands of real-money online NLHE played over the course of one year (from October 2009 to September 2010). Hands came from three different stakes -- 25NL, 200NL, and 1,000NL -- and involved over half a million different players. One player alone played 760,000 hands (!), while more than half of all players played less than 100 hands. The average number of hands each player played was around 1,000 for the middle and high stakes games and just over 400 for 25NL.

Of interest to many is the finding that 32% of all players in their sample “achieved a positive overall result after the deduction of rake,” a figure much higher than what I would’ve guessed. It should be noted the researchers ended up controlling for rake -- i.e., did not account for it when measuring performance -- since they’re aware of things like rakeback and bonuses and other factors that make it unclear just how much rake ultimately affects players’ profits.

Digging deeper, the researchers split the 12-month period into two 6-month periods, then looked at the first 6-month period, filtering out players who played less than 1,000 hands (the average ended up being about 5,800 hands per player). They worked out the BB/100 for each of those 32,716 players, then looked at those same players’ performances during the second 6-month period.

“In a nutshell,” they explain, “the results indicate that there is substantial and significant persistence in performance: deciles of players that performed relatively well in the first period on average continued to do so in the second period.”

The number-crunching continues from there, including performing similar analyses while breaking down the 12-months into four 3-month periods, as well as doing other work to try to account for varying sample sizes (i.e., to lessen the impact on the findings of those players playing fewer hands). The second half of the study then performs additional “regression analyses” that ultimately reinforce the initial findings that there does exist “persistence in performance” in poker, although to be honest this is where I have to admit my own limitations with comprehension.

The conclusion goes on to talk about brick-and-mortar games, tournament poker, and other variants not covered by the study. Suffice it to say, the study is quite thorough and self-aware, and its conclusion that “the results provide strong evidence against the hypothesis that poker is a game of pure chance” is quite persuasive.

“Is Poker a Game of Skill or Chance? A Quasi-Experimental Study”

Journal of Gambling StudiesI was very curious about this study by four German psychologists given its conclusion that luck rather than skill predominated in poker -- the first academic study I’ve heard of, actually, that does not come down on the side of skill. By the way, a “quasi-experimental study” refers to an empirical study in which the researcher gets to control the conditions. For example, rather than look at hands dealt by others (or by an online card room), the researchers can deal the cards and even minimize the randomness of how they are distributed.

Like the Dutch crowd, the authors of this study also begin with an overview of poker’s popularity, the abundance of online rooms (594 as of 2011, they say), and various legal battles in which the “luck-vs.-skill” issue is often central. They then look at previous studies which they characterize as “heterogenous and fragmentary” given the disparate types of methodologies employed. “Most research findings have suggested that skill is a meaningful element,” they admit, although qualify this statement by suggesting previous research has been “based on a relatively superficial examination.”

Moving on, the group next explains their methodology. They recruited 300 poker players via online advertisements, emailing them questionnaires about their poker skill and behavior, then paying their travel expenses to come participate. Those players were then given a second 27-item questionnaire designed to determine whether to classify each as an “average” or “expert” player.

The questions asked about their frequency of play, their self-perceptions about their own success and skill, and even what you might call their mental toughness (“How often do you mentally deal with poker, even if you do not play?”). A complicated method of grading the questionnaries was established, and ultimately the 300 players were divided evenly into two groups of 150 “average” players and 150 “expert” ones.

The 300 were then sat around 50 six-handed tables, half of which played no-limit hold’em while the other half played fixed-limit HE. The blinds were €0.03/€0.06 for both games, with each player given €10 with which to play. The LHE players got all €10 to start, while the NLHE ones got €5 with a chance to “rebuy” for €5 more.

“To provide an overall incentive to participate in the game and to ensure that the players’ game behavior would reflect actual play to the greatest extent,” there were prizes given to players who did well, although to be honest I’m not really following how those prizes were distributed. The study says “five special prizes of up to EUR 500 were offered to the best players at all of the tables,” whatever that means.

The games were played on computers (with players isolated from one another), following a “duplicate poker” format with all hands -- i.e., all the hole cards, flops, turns, and rivers -- having been predetermined. Players didn’t know this (i.e., they were led to believe the deal was random), nor did they know the game would be stopped after playing just 60 hands.

The deal was manipulated in a way that is also a bit ambiguous to follow, with players being dealt the “winning hand” and “losing hand” a predetermined number of times. I’ll boil it down to all players intentionally being dealt “good cards” and “bad cards” in a way the researchers believed to be evenly distributed, with the idea being to compare how well the “experts” did versus the “average players” in both cases (i.e., when running good and when running bad).

The results indicated what the researchers determine to be statistically insignificant differences between the performance of the “experts” and the “average players” when it came to playing good cards (or being dealt “winning hands”). That is, the “experts” did a little better, it sounds like, but not enough to matter. However, when dealt bad cards (“losing hands”), the “experts... outperformed average players... considerably.”

Again, as with the Dutch economists’ study, there are tables and breakdowns of the results, most of which extend beyond my understanding. But I think I’m following the overall argument, namely, that since “the only significant difference in cash balance outcome between experts and average players was under bad card conditions,” the researchers are concluding “there was no evidence for one group’s overall superiority in this context.”

“Therefore,” they go on to say, “it can be concluded that chance clearly dominates skill; thus, poker should be classified as gambling.”

To their credit, the researchers do admit to various limitations in their methodology, including a recognition that their subjects were self-selected and that their questionnaires had not been adequately tested for reliability. They also acknowledge they’ve gone with a super-small sample size in terms of number hands, although weirdly respond to that objection by speculating that “it could be assumed that with longer play periods, the difference in players’ level of skill would decrease,” a statement that seems to betray an obvious lack of understanding of the game they are studying.

There seem to be some huge problems with the Germans’ methodology that ultimately undermine the study in a significant way -- from the highly-suspect method of classifying of players as “expert” or “average” to the awkward dealing of “winning” and “losing” hands to the teeny-tiny sample size. More than enough to make their conclusion seem prematurely drawn, I’d say.

I remember reading an article in the Journal of Gambling Studies a couple of years ago, one by Kyle Siler called “Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker,” which seemed much more grounded and persuasive (discussed here). But that’s not the case with this one.

No, I’m still looking for a more convincing academic study proving once and for all that luck prevails in poker. After all, there seems to be a “persistence of performance” when it comes to these studies, with most ultimately having shown that skill is significant.

(Groovy “ambigram” graphic up top by Michael Irving.)

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Poker Wins One (Luck or Skill?)

'Pure Skill v. Pure Luck, acc. to Legg Mason, Inc.Have been a little preoccupied over the last few days, although I did see the news of that “poker ruled a game of skill” judgment that went down in New York yesterday.

A federal judge made a ruling in a case involving a man who’d been accused of running an illegal gambling poker club out of a Staten Island warehouse. The defendant, a businessman named Lawrence Dicristina, had been convicted last month, but Judge Jack Weinstein threw out the conviction because in his estimation the case had been made that poker “is not predominantly a game of chance” and therefore didn’t constitute gambling as defined by the Illegal Gambling Business Act (IGBA).

The case itself had nothing specifically to do with online poker. However, the IGBA has come up before in the context of arguments about online poker’s legality, including having been one of the laws some of those Black Friday defendants were charged with breaking last year. Thus did yesterday’s ruling understandably raise the eyebrows of those following the legislative fate of online poker in the U.S.

Indeed, late last year a couple of the Black Friday defendants, John Campos and Chad Elie, had filed a motion to have charges against them dismissed, with one of their arguments being that poker didn’t constitute “illegal gambling” as (inadequately) defined by the IGBA or the UIGEA, both of which they’d been charged with violating.

Of course, the pair were facing other charges, too, including some (money laundering, conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud) for which the question of whether poker was or was not gambling didn’t matter so much.

The way things played out with Campos and Elie, their judge never did go so far as to rule one way or the other on the question of poker being a game of chance or skill. (In late March of this year, Elie pleaded guilty to bank fraud and operating an illegal gambling business, while Campos pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge.) However here we have a judge going all of the way back to the IGBA’s passage into law in 1970, taking into account the original intention behind that law as well as studies of Texas hold’em supporting the game’s skill component in order to conclude that he doesn’t believe poker -- or hold’em, at least -- is gambling as the IGBA defines it.

Winners and LosersI’ve yet really to do much more than skim the 120-page judgment, although am intrigued to read it more closely thanks especially to that early lengthy section providing “Evidence on Poker.” There one finds a thumbnail sketch of the history of poker in the U.S., an explanation of how to play hold’em, and expert testimony by an economist named Dr. Randal D. Heeb (with tables and charts) arguing how “the ten most proficient players earn dramatically more money than the ten least proficient players over the course of a year.”

Dr. Heeb is referred to as having “acknowledged that poker falls in between chess, which he characterized as an almost pure game of skill, and roulette, which he characterized as a pure game of chance.” (By the way, that graphic appearing up top that similarly describes chess and roulette is not Heeb’s but also comes from the world of economics, having been created by a global investment management firm as part of a presentation on investing.)

A second expert witness, Dr. David DeRosa, “also a well qualified econometrician,” then tries to poke holes in some of Heeb’s conclusions, ultimately concluding “that Dr. Heeb has not proven that skill predominates over chance in poker.” The document goes on to discuss other rulings on the matter and legislative history, with Judge Weinstein ultimately deciding that “the rule of lenity compels a narrow reading of the IGBA, and dismissal of defendant's conviction.”

It’s worth pointing out the Poker Players Alliance’s involvement here, providing help to the defense including briefs and expert testimony. Also worth noting is how the ruling does in fact represent a first instance of poker being distinguished from other types of gambling in a federal court, being characterized as a game predominated by skill and thus not in this instance thought to be covered by the IGBA.

Even so, other judges have viewed the IGBA differently, not sharing Weinstein’s view and still considering poker as gambling as the law defines it. And there are other laws, too, besides the IGBA which could still be interpreted as prohibiting someone from offering a game of hold’em like Decristina did in his Staten Island warehouse.

In other words, it’s hard to say... did poker get lucky this time? Or did poker win one on its own merits? And will this outcome have any affect on how the next hand will play out?

(EDIT [added 8/24/12]: Grange95 has given us a terrific overview of the primary consequences of Weinstein’s ruling in a blog post over on the crAAKKer blog, “United States v. Dicristina—A Win for Poker Players (with an Asterisk).”)

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The “Very American” Story of Online Poker

U$AI mentioned yesterday how I’d started my class once again, that American Studies course called “Poker in American Film and Culture.” I’ve taught it several times now, and each semester am adding certain readings, moving others off the “required” list and onto a “recommend” one. I’ve also been gradually accumulating more and more examples of poker in film, showing different clips in class along the way to emphasize various topics we cover.

One scene I know I’ll be showing at some point this time around is from the 1968 film The Odd Couple which I just wrote about in a new “Pop Poker” piece for PokerListings.

I also noted in yesterday’s post how we begin the semester reading an excerpt from Poker: Bets, Bluffs and Bad Beats by Al Alvarez, taken from the first chapter titled “The American Game.” It is a neat way to kick off the whole discussion or “argument” of the course that poker is distinctly “American” and thus worth studying as a way to learn more about American history and culture. Reading the excerpt also introduces Alvarez to the students, whom we’ll read again later on when we pick up The Biggest Game in Town.

By talking about the syllabus, reading that Alvarez excerpt, and then soon after starting James McManus’ Cowboys Full (from which we’ll read a lot during the first few weeks), we quickly gather lots of examples of so-called “American” values or ideals. Thus do we focus a lot at the start on ideas and concepts like freedom, liberty, equality, democracy, capitalism, self-reliance, the “frontier spirit,” the “American dream,” the importance of being rewarded for one’s work, and the inclination to take risks and gamble. And how poker could be regarded as a game that neatly reflects or is shaped by all of these ideas and concepts.

Of course, when we use the adjective “American” in class we do it in the context of academic inquiry, not jingoistic sloganeering. That is to say, it is understood that while there is much that is great about the U.S., not everything that is “American” is automatically “good.” There are a lot of things about the country and American culture that aren’t necessarily admirable, and some of those less than admirable characteristics also find their way into poker.

Speaking of The Odd Couple, Alvarez includes in his chapter that great Walter Matthau quote about how “the game exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.” The quote points out in an humorous way how there are both positive and negative aspects to the game and the country.

I found myself thinking further about referring to something as “American” as a kind of uncritical defense when I heard Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House (about the MIT blackjack team) and The Accidental Billionaires (about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook), talking on CNBC about his plans to write “a big new book for next summer” that appears to cover the rise and fall of Absolute Poker. Mezrich appeared on the panel show Squawk Box as a guest host, and while there was given a chance to talk about his own writings, past and future.

Ben Mezrich on CNBC's 'Squawk Box'Mezrich enthusiastically characterized the story as being “about a bunch of college kids who launched the online poker world out of a dorm room essentially” -- kind of a nutty, highly misleading thing to say about the AP guys who hardly “launched” online poker, having come into it years after its beginnings.

Mezrich continued, revealing he has a strange take on the story’s principals, too. “They’re brilliant kids who built an empire in a way, and now they’re being persecuted, hiding in Antigua or whatever, and because they did something to me that was very American,” said Mezrich. “It’s an intersection of 21 and The Social Network,” he added, alluding to film adaptations of his two best-known books.

The misleading here becomes more grievous, I’m afraid. Those “brilliant kids” now being unjustly “persecuted” are the same ones who were involved in the original superuser scandals and subsequent cover-ups, the bilking of millions from investors, various forms of bank and wire fraud, violating the UIGEA, and the failure to return player funds following Black Friday.

Hardly heroes, in other words, although it sounds like Mezrich might be angling towards shaping them into such with his version of the story. See Haley Hintze’s response to Mezrich’s weird take here, as well as this article on PokerFuse that notes how Mezrich may himself in fact have ties to the AP “frat boys” that might be influencing both his decision to write about them and how he’s approaching the task.

Mezrich describes AP’s founders as having done something “very American,” a superficial defense of the entrepreneurial urge that motivated them to build their “empire.” But clearly there was an abundance of unchecked greed there, too, perhaps also an “American” trait though here pursued to the point of abandoning morality and engaging in criminal behavior damaging to many, many others.

Mezrich certainly seems to be glossing over (or missing altogether) some obvious points in the story in this early, abridged pitch of his book. We’ll see where Mezrich goes with his project, which obviously could change. After all, as the Absolute Poker frat boys well demonstrated, things don’t always go as originally planned.

I will give him this much, though -- there is perhaps something “very American” about the story of online poker’s rise and fall in the U.S., as well as the stories of some of the more nefarious characters in that narrative.

I think when I use the phrase my meaning is a little different, though.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Fun and Home Games

Hard-Boiled Poker Home Games, Standings for Season 1 (through Event No. 8)Had fun last night with Event Nos. 7 and 8 in Season 1 of the Hard-Boiled Poker Home League on PokerStars. Gonna have to think of a groovy name or acronym or something for the series, I think. Something more eye-catching than “HBP HG” or whatever.

Good turnouts last night, too, with 18 players joining both events. The way the league works points are awarded for finishing in the top third of the field, which meant the top six finishers in both tourneys got something points-wise last night.

PokerGeekMN won Event No. 7 (mixed hold’em), with **GMONEY*722 (@throwinrocks) taking second and AvoidOddLaw third. Then in Event No. 8 (2-7 NL) it was Grange95 coming out on top. SmBoatDrinks took second in that one (after finishing fourth in Event No. 7), while I managed to sneak into third.

Hadn’t played deuce-to-seven in a while -- long enough to have forgotten I enjoy the game. I continue to piddle around for small change on those Merge sites (Hero and Carbon), and while they do offer non-standard games there’s almost never anything but hold’em or PLO going.

Can’t say I ever really studied 2-7 NL that carefully. I did long ago read Daniel Negreanu’s short chapter in Super System 2 covering triple draw, though I don’t recall ever read anything specifically teaching how to play no-limit deuce-to-seven. I did learn from Negreanu the importance of starting with at least a deuce, though.

Discarding cards in draw games on PokerStarsIn deuce-to-seven NL and other draw games on PokerStars, you click on the cards you don’t want (i.e., the ones you want to discard) when it comes time to do so. Always seemed intuitive enough to me, although last night someone mentioned how he wished there was an option to do the reverse -- i.e., to click on the cards you want to keep.

In fact, I think he might’ve messed up an early hand after having gotten it backwards. He mentioned how when playing video poker you click the “hold” buttons under the cards you want to keep, and I could see how someone used to doing that might not think to click on unwanted cards.

As I’ve been doing every Sunday, the early tourney (starting at 20:00 ET) featured five-minute levels while I set up the later one (21:00) to have three-minute levels. As it happened, both events ended right around the same time, just after 10 p.m. my time.

I know that three-minute levels essentially turns a tourney into a turbo, but I don’t want to create tourneys that are going to run too late on Sunday nights. So I think I’ll keep with the same format for now, and if the fields continue to increase, I might push the start times back an hour earlier.

After last night’s tourneys, **GMONEY*722 has moved into the top spot in the league standings with thejim2020 and Gambit 727 close behind. That pic above shows the standings at the moment (click to enlarge). We’ve played eight out of the 20 events so far; thus there’s still a way to go and plenty of time for catching up. Will continue to do two events each Sunday night through the end of September, at which point “Season 1” will conclude.

As I mentioned before, the “Season 1” winner will get a copy of Poker: Bets, Beats and Bluffs by Al Alvarez, a nifty book of essay-like chapters that also includes a lot of cool photos and illustrations.

I’m starting a new semester of my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class today, and in fact in today’s first meeting I’ll have the students read and discuss part of the first chapter, titled “The American Game.” That opening by Alvarez does a neat job of explaining how poker is in many ways representative of American culture, a topic I think I might take up tomorrow in another context.

I’ll probably include a Badugi tourney this coming week, and perhaps Omaha/8 for the other. Feel free to pass along suggestions of all kinds for how I might conduct this here tournament series or any ideas I might want to consider for Season 2. Meanwhile, anyone interested in playing in these free tourneys is welcome. If you aren’t in the HBP HG, see the right-hand column for info on joining up.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Revisiting Selbst vs. Lamb, 2012 WSOP ME, Day 3

Vanessa Selbst and Ben Lamb play a tense hand on Day 3 of the 2012 WSOP Main EventThis week ESPN began airing its coverage of the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event. Like last year, they are picking things up on Day 3 after the entire field finally combined.

Unlike last year, there was no “almost live” coverage of the WSOP back in July, so these shows that will be aired every Tuesday night through late October present the first opportunity for viewers to see anything from this year’s Main Event.

I’m somewhat intrigued to watch this time around, in part because I was there helping cover the ME for PokerNews every day from Day 3 onward. As you might imagine, when I watch I’m often searching the backgrounds for familiar faces -- and perhaps even my own.

I’m also keeping a lookout for hands I might have seen and even reported on, too. That was pretty unlikely to happen this week, given how most of the coverage centered on those two feature tables, neither of which I was covering. And with nearly 200 tables’ worth of players starting Day 3, the chances I’d be standing next to one and seeing a hand that ESPN both shot and thought worthy of including were pretty minimal.

But it happened. There was one hand featured on Tuesday’s show that I not only saw but reported on, too. It involved Vanessa Selbst and Ben Lamb who happened to be seated right next to each other to begin Day 3.

They weren’t at a feature table, but were at one of three other tables that had been separated for easier access for the cameras. In other words, the odds of a hand being shown from one of those tables were a little higher, generally speaking. But the chance that I would actually be over there at the exact moment one of those hands took place was pretty damn slim, as I was stationed way over on the other side of the Amazon Room that day and only got over there a couple of times early on before another reporter took over covering that section.

If you watched the coverage on Tuesday, you might remember the hand. ESPN only picked up the action on the river. Selbst, playing from the small blind, had led with a bet, Lamb had raised on the button, then Selbst was shown pushing out a big reraise. ESPN shows Lamb smile briefly at the sight of the reraise, think for what appears to be just a few seconds, then fold.

The board was 7s2s6c5s5h. Selbst had Ah7h for sevens and fives, while Lamb had JsTs for a spade flush. Thus when we watch on ESPN we see that Selbst forced Lamb to fold the best hand.

Like I say, I watched the hand live and reported on it for PokerNews. I even mention in that hand report that it might be a hand worth showing on ESPN. My report of the hand begins with the preflop action, and thus spells out how Lamb had opened preflop from the button and Selbst had just called. Selbst also check-called the flop after making top pair-top kicker. Selbst then led the turn after that third spade hit, and Lamb just called.

My report also mentions how much time the players were taking before acting, with Selbst taking a couple of minutes before making that reraise on the river and Lamb’s final tank-and-fold having lasted over three minutes. It was a tense one to witness, and I’m a bit amazed now to learn what both players were holding. Indeed, I'm kind of marveling over both Selbst’s river reraise and Lamb’s fold.

If you’re curious to compare my hand report and what was shown on ESPN, read here, then check out the coverage starting at the 12:20 mark of this video. (The latter link goes to the timestamp.)

By the way, one thing you won’t see in the clip is your humble reporter, who was dutifully staying out of the shots.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

On the PPA; or, Fight! Fight! Fight!

Fight! Fight! Fight!Was talking yesterday about the official completion of the agreement involving the U.S. Department of Justice, PokerStars, and Full Tilt Poker and some of the early post-agreement machinations that have resulted, one of which is the reemergence of that “FTPDoug” character who has come back into the online poker narrative in a different guise (“FTPMarkus”), apparently this time to be patterned more closely after his real self (Shyam Markus).

Among the other reactions to the completion of the agreement late last week was Poker Players Alliance Executive Director John Pappas writing a guest editorial about it for Forbes, the business magazine (and site) that has been reporting consistently about Black Friday and its aftermath over the last 16 months.

The PPA might be regarded as yet another “character” in this ongoing drama, kind of an eccentric one, really, who generally appears on stage moments after a meaningful plot development involving the story’s central players. Usually the appearance is marked by the repetition of certain slogans (“Poker is not a crime!”) and reaffirmations of the PPA’s commitment to fight for poker players’ “rights” (as the PPA understands them).

In the case of the Forbes op-ed, however, there appeared an extra bit of analysis regarding the agreement and what Pappas and the PPA believe it suggests regarding the DOJ’s stance on the future of online poker in the U.S.

Pappas highlights the fact that the agreement “very clearly left the door open” for PokerStars and FTP to return once the laws change and “the United States decides to license and regulate this great American pastime.” He is alluding to what the DOJ said in their press release accompanying the agreement, namely, that Stars “is prohibited from offering online poker in the U.S. for real money unless and until it is legal to do so under U.S. law.” (As would be a Stars-run FTP or any other site.)

For Pappas, this part of the agreement represents a “hidden gem” indicating the DOJ’s judgment about current laws and the need to license and regulate online poker in the U.S. “This sends an important message to Congress,” writes Pappas. “The Justice Department could have very easily banned PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker from the United States forever. Yet it chose not to. It chose to clearly recognize that online poker can and should be a viable industry in this country. Now the question is, will Congress listen?”

Poker Players AllianceThat Pappas is making a hopeful, almost delirious leap here should be obvious. The DOJ doesn’t say a thing about the need to legalize online poker or its prospects as a “viable industry” in the U.S. Rather the DOJ stays well within its charge to enforce current laws while also stating its intention to continue to do so in the future, correctly leaving the business of drawing up those laws to legislators.

A few days ago on the crAAKKer blog, Grange95 pointed out some of the problems with Pappas’ statement about the DOJ and the idea it is sending a “message” to lawmakers with the agreement. His post notes that Pappas misrepresents the DOJ’s position here, calling it “a stupid and unnecessary rhetorical gamble.”

Grange95 is right -- the DOJ isn’t saying what Congress should do going forward with regard to online poker. Even that much-heralded September 2011 memo (made public last December) in which the DOJ clarified its position regarding the Wire Act applying only to sports betting said nothing in particular about online poker. Nor did it address the UIGEA; in fact, it explicitly noted how the UIGEA was outside the scope of that particular opinion.

Now the opinion expressed in the memo certainly implies how the DOJ might choose to enforce the Wire Act vis-à-vis online poker going forward. Such an interpretation seems to be the impetus behind states’ moving ahead with legislation. But even there it wouldn’t be right to characterize the DOJ as somehow calling for the passing of new laws.

As the enforcer of the law, the DOJ does get to have opinions and make judgments about current laws and how to apply them. But it doesn’t get to make the laws. Nor should the choices it makes when enforcing laws be automatically understood as “messages” to legislators about those laws, or about the need for new, different laws. (Rather are such messages about laws more “clearly” delivered in courtrooms when they get challenged and rulings are made regarding them.)

Grange95 talks further about how the DOJ might not appreciate the PPA characterizing it as pro-online poker. Indeed, the title of his post -- “Did Pappas and the PPA Just Shoot Full Tilt Players in the Foot?” -- suggests the DOJ might even be affected somehow by the PPA in a way that could negatively affect U.S. players getting their FTP funds back. But he doesn’t really pursue that point too far in the post. (For a response addressing both that suggestion and another view of the PPA op-ed, see Chris Grove’s rejoinder “No, the PPA Did Not Just Shoot FTP Players in the Foot.”)

According to the PPA, 'The Players Will Never Fold'The PPA is a lobbying organization, fully immersed in the language of politics and campaigning. It isn’t that surprising, then, to see them spin the agreement in a way that makes it fit more neatly into its usual rallying cries.

Maybe I’m being affected by the fact that as we edge closer to the November elections we’re also being inundated by politicized language and argumentation, with just about every statement about anything getting spun into some sort of “platform” or statement of position or other form of campaigning. It is exhausting, though, constantly to be seeing others make this rhetorical move -- that is, to see everything as part of the “the fight” and thus try at every turn to turn all actions or statements into something positive for “our” side.

Makes me think of that PPA slogan “The Players Will Never Fold.” In poker, hands go by in which nothing particularly good happens for us. We can’t win every hand. We can’t even compete, sometimes. There are hands we have to fold. And then we sit and watch others’ fortunes being affected, with the outcome often having no special significance on our own.

Never folding is a losing strategy. There are times the best “Action Plan” (another favored PPA phrase) is not to act -- not always to “fight” -- but rather observe and assess. Then later we might act in an informed way, with purpose. And with a chance to win.

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