Thursday, June 30, 2011


as mentioned from my last entry, i would like to posit that a poker player who is good at his craft, has the same characteristics as a good storyteller.

good story telling begins with an awareness of its audience.

any work of art is going to be limited by its audience.  a piece of artwork that may be worth millions of dollars may not have any significance to someone who's knowledge or appreciation of art is limited.  this is not to say that i have taste in every single art form there is.  no one does.  i will definitely appreciate Amazing Fantasy 15 more than a jackson pollock.

if we are to compare poker playing to an art form, we must also recognize that there are different levels of awareness when it comes to players.  to paraphrase my friend tom, "making advanced plays against newbs is like painting a picasso for a douchey rich guy who has no actual appreciation for it outside of its name, a total waste."

therefore, as a poker player, never fall into the trap of thinking, "well he SHOULD have been thinking along the lines of xyz, because that's obviously logical."  a successful player gets into the mind of their opponents, and makes them fulfill their own prophesy.

next, what characterizes most basic stories is narrative structure.

a good poker player is always aware of what he does.  that sounds a lot simpler than it actually is.  but take into account a simple action such as just looking at your cards.  if you do it before the people on your right have to act, there's a possibility that you may give away information that alerts the people on your right to whether or not you have an interest in the hand.  but if you do it right when you have to act, the attention is on you, where people may be able to pick up something while you do look at your cards.  in this case, the optimal thing to do is to simply look at your hand, but have a consistent thing you do afterwards so that your opponents don't know whether you're going to play or not.

naturally then, everything a player does becomes consistent with some sort of plot line.  a good player realizes the plot that he is trying to tell and has already prepared a gameplan for the different outcomes of the story, and what different punchlines he can deliver.  he does not try to deviate from that plot line, or his story will fall apart.

there was a hand i played at a casino a long time ago, playing 2/5 no limit hold em.  i had picked up 55 in the big blind.  an early position raiser opened the action to 25 and three other people called, so i came along for the ride and called.  the flop was 864, with no two suits.  the flop was checked all the way around (everyone checked).  the turn came another 4 bringing a flush draw.  i checked as did the original raiser, but then the third player fired 100.  two folds came to me, and i called, and the original raiser folded.  the river came an offsuit K.  i checked, and the player bet 200, and i immediately called.  he turned over a busted ace high flush draw for ace high, and became angry that i had called his big bet with such a weak hand.  he wondered how i could have called there, as there was so much on the board that beat me?

what he forgot to realize is that merely firing big bets into a pot does not make your hand believably strong.  it must be consistent with how a strong hand would normally be played.  if he had some sort of set on the flop, he most certainly would not have checked it.  he probably would not even check a hand like top pair because he was later to act with a decent hand, to protect his hand from getting drawn out on.  on the turn, because a 2nd flush card came, it added a lot of possibility to hands precisely like the one he held, a semi-bluff.  on the river, even if he had a hand like a pair flush draw on the turn (like 7c6c, for example), he would not bet it on the river, because he can not be totally confident that his pair of sixes is the best hand (beaten by an 8, or overpair, or a K).  so when he bets the river, he is representing a strong hand, but it is not consistent with the fact that he had originally checked the flop.  he could have backdoored into a hand like A4 suited, but the more likely scenario was that he had a missed flush draw (there are more combinations).

now this assessment of his story had to do with my assessment of him as a player to begin with.  he could have totally been leveling me and made some sort of tricky slowplay or thin value bet (a big bet with not so strong of a hand but confidently getting calls from even weaker hands), but like a well versed storyteller, i had "read plenty of his stories" in the past, and could conclude what kind of plot line he was capable of delivering.

most classic stories have a strong focus on temporality (which includes retention of the past, attention to present action, and protention/future anticipation).

when most professionals break down a hand, or recount a hand to others, they go into history.  what they mean is any history that existed prior to the hand, during that session, during any other session where the players involved in the hand were playing with each other, and then during the actual hand itself.  any detail is usually helpful, what their opponent said, what they themselves said, what both of their actions were, how they acted during each action, how they reacted, how quickly they acted and the sequence in which their actions were made are all taken into account.

most newbs fail to recount even the most basic of details, such as what position they were in the hand, or the bet sizes, or even who the player was.  they are most inwardly focused on the details that do not matter.  the reason that they don't have good "poker faces" is not because they are so concentrated on what they have they don't focus at all on what their opponents have, and play in a predictable manner.  as it were, they give away the story's climax before it begins, they do not properly lay out the structure before they start, and so a proper audience knows exactly what they're representing.

the forms of poker that have multiple rounds of betting allow for a player to unfold the story of his hand in many different ways.  each street (round) becomes a chance for him to make a different kind of move, thereby allowing for creativity.  this idea is illustrated best of the concept of range identification.  in poker, good players don't actually put a player on one specific hand and go with that unless something changes to make them guess at a different hand.  instead, they put player on a "range" of several possible holdings, narrowing it down street by street by process of elimination, as more information becomes available.  the skilled player not only makes an action for the current street of the hand, but thinks about how that action will affect future actions and future interpretations of his past actions, laying the groundwork for a complete beginning, middle and end.

finally, a good story allows for many different interpretations and viewpoints.

although playing solid fundamental poker is good, there is always a place for some sort of unpredictability, especially if it can surprise an opponent or exploit an opponent's major weakness.  although no story is truly original and has basic rules to make it work, at the same time, most good stories have some sort of unique twist that make them interesting.  in the same way, it's always good to stick by a certain playbook when in doubt, but from time to time, it may be wise to throw a curveball every once in a while.

the trick to do this is to make a surprise come out of something you typically do.  in a tournament i was once in, i started completing the small blind with most of my hands, because the hand was good enough to try to sneak in a flop but not good enough to stand a reraise before the flop.  my big blind partner started picking up on this, and as a response, started being more aggressive when i tried to cheaply see the flop.  as a result, the next time i picked up a strong hand, i limped again.  as predicted, the big blind shoved his stack and i snapped him off, and ended up busting him out of the tournament.  but this play required me to show my opponent the same move repeatedly until he was convinced that he knew what kind of hand i had each time.  this enabled me to give him a twist for a surprise ending.

i end this post with two full tilt ads featuring gus hansen that are pretty gute, maybe they'll clarify it a bit:

Monday, June 20, 2011


as many poker players who have had the experience of talking with "normals" (i guess the poker player equivalent of muggles), i have run into several typical questions about my line of work.  some common questions that any professional would roll their eyes at are:

a) what % of poker is luck and what % is skill?

my answer would be that this is just as easily quantifiable as anything in life, how do you quantify % numbers of skill and luck in any endeavor?  does the fact that part of poker is determined by statistics help define that cause?  would you say that your particular occupation is 100% skill, that the amount of work you put in it is precisely what determines how much success you achieve?  i would almost unequivocally say that this is not the case.  this illusion of self determinism is an incorrect assumption is what most people have about their own lives, which is the fallacy that causes them to ask useless questions like this.

what annoys me when i go on to explain this, is that people still ask, no but if you had to say how much % is skill what would you say.  ignorant people irk me.

b) do you get free rooms or recognition because you're a poker player?

this is a simple question of incentives.  since a hotel/casino doesn't really make that much money from poker players, they don't have that much incentive to keep them around.  in fact, poker rooms mostly exist to entice players to come, and then gamble/spend their money at that particular casino (since sometimes even successful poker players will make bad decisions playing in the pit).

so the short simple answer is no, i get no recognition.  unless you're a pretty well known player, or you are a regular at a particular casino, you don't really get any preferential treatment.

another corollary question is if i get a free entry to the WSOP every year.  again, simple mathematics would probably answer this question.  considering that there is probably close to 300 people who have made the final table at the world series from inception, (and around 9 more every year), does it make sense for a casino to dump 3 million+ in a prize pool they are making maybe 6 million from?  probably not.

c) isn't it all math?  isn't it like that movie 21?  do you get taken to a back room if you win too much?

21 was about a team of MIT students who counted cards playing blackjack.  the game of blackjack is played against the casino, and in theory, played over the long run with a counting strategy, a gambler should be able to win, because they will be statistically favored over an infinite number of trials.

poker however, is a game that is played against other opponents that have no affiliation with the casino.  therefore, no, you won't be taken to a back room if you win (though sometimes you want to make sure you're not being followed to the parking lot in seedier casinos/cardrooms).  and because human decisions are involved, it becomes a math problem, yes, but it becomes more complex as strategy becomes described moreso by a game theoretical structure than a purely mathematical formula.

my next entry will go into how that develops, and why i relate good poker playing to story telling.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

cut, or you will be cut.

so much of poker has drawn a lot of attention from people in recent history:

a) the glamour of being a professional gambler, which has been grossly heightened partly due to poker players self aggrandizement and natural narcissism (one needs to really believe in one's ability and judgment to really excel at poker), and also probably because of recent media portraying gambling in a "cool" light (ocean's eleven, 21, rounders, etc.), but also because of the recent allowance for a wide multitude of players to make a very profitable living off of it.

b) for the players, some of it has been the intellectual side, relating it to merely as a game that is played where money are points to keep score, where complicated bayseian game theory also meets an element of heightened awareness of human psychology (games where money is at risk tend to bring out heightened emotion).

c) our culture has been reevaluating the acceptability of gambling as a normal way of life, by examining the definition of poker as a game of skill or chance, what part the government has in allowing or disallowing it, and ethical debates of the impact of poker on our society.

as i have understood last year, however, there's one aspect of poker that has become more apparent to me.  with winners, there are losers.  this much is painfully obvious, but that doesn't tell the whole story.  in order to be successful at the game, you have to be willing to constantly be on the attack.  it might be silly, but you almost have to think of it as a war, in a warrior like mentality.  your table mates, are your adversaries.  and as hard as it may be you must not harbor good or bad feelings towards them, as both will cloud your judgment.

last september, i played in the WPT at the borgata, where i finished 19th.  there was a bit of luck sure, but i think also what was different than from how i had been playing a lot recently was the way i approached each hand.  i had been playing with a more robotic mentality when i was playing, and things became just textbook and predictable.  i switched from thinking, "i'm merely betting, folding, raising, calling,"  to thinking, "i am cutting into their stack," visualizing my chips as more of a cutting tool.  every bet became a thrust, every fold became a side step, every call became a parry.  all necessary moves to gain victory, but all moves that needed to be played at the right time.  however, if you're too friendly with your opponents, you may not be as willing to cut them when the time comes.  if you're filled with too much enmity towards them, you may become distracted and walk into a trap by another opponent.

there was one hand where i lost focus, and i thought of saving my chips as a measure of safety, when the move was to be aggressive and shove it all in.  i was distracted not by my opponent, but by my not accepting that i was in a battle to begin with, and that i was trying to escape it instead of face it.  it was because i let my emotion dictate my actions that i didn't win where i should have, where it was better to err on the side of...not caution.  it could've made the difference between a late finish and a final table.

5 years ago, when i played in the main event for the first time, i went in with the mentality that i wouldn't play scared and i would play the best i could no matter what and even if the best play seemed risky, because in the grand scheme of things, the $10,000 didn't mean much if i had to live regretting making a poor decision that would cost me what i thought would be my only shot at the WSOP main event.  i think i've lost that mentality after a few years, and hope to regain it next month, when i will probably play the main event for the last a while, at least.