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:

1 comment:

Wandering Gambler said...

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