Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

Writing and playing poker as if they were activities worth doing well.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

No Sure Thing

From Ed Miller:
After all, you’re not looking for a sure thing. It’s okay if you get caught sometimes. You just need an edge.

It is easy to forget this. We have bankrolls and multiple buy-ins for precisely this reason.

We don't have to win every hand. We just have to play every hand in a way that maximizes its expected value in the long run. That means we'll lose hands like that a certain amount of time. Our bluffs will get snapped off occasionally. The odds will break against us from time to time. THAT'S OKAY.

Lose the battle, win the war. We have more than one soldier, more than one bullet. We are legion, and we know where the edge is.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Day 102: I'm A Steamroller, Baby

...and I'm gonna roll all over you!

I feel like my game gets a whole lot better every time I go and play seriously in a casino. My A League had a poker marathon day today, and I played in four tournaments.


Game 1: chopped for 1st
Game 2: 2nd
Game 3: chopped for 1st
Game 4: chopped for 1st

Why all the chops? There were people impatiently waiting to play the next game, except for the last one which ran very late. I already have my qualifying win for the League end-of-quarter tournament, so while the extra money for an outright win would be nice, it's just not that big a deal, and I get goodwill points for keeping things moving along.

Now, to be candid, I did run pretty well. I got lucky when I needed to. I was NOT card dead, and I managed to hit the flop my fair share of times. I also played ~ and I do not say this lightly ~ almost entirely error-free poker. I made great calls, I made great laydowns, I made great bluffs, and I made great value bets. I played really, really well, and I was playing BY WIRE. I was in the zone: intuition and logical thinking in sync. What a great feeling!

If I can keep this up, I am going to be very, very hard to beat.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008


I am so grateful to be able to spend this year playing poker and writing. Thank you, friends and family. Thank you, poker writers. Thank you, poker players and poker community.

Those of you who've known me for awhile know that it's been a long time since I was genuinely happy with my life. It astonishes me every day now when I wake up and realize that I'm not miserable. I am having fun... you have no idea how much fun.

How great is it, at this stage of my life, to actually be doing what I want?! Let me tell you: IT IS REALLY GREAT.

I am blessed.

May you have a wonderful Thanksgiving among those you love!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 99: The Reckoning

Okay, just a quick note to say that I managed to do very nicely indeed in two different cash games tonight, the Capitol Hill game and the Crime Scene game.

I realize also that I failed to note any stats from the landmark end of Month Three. This is mostly because I'd forgotten to close out Month Three (which ended before my latest AC trip) ~ and I probably forgot to do that in part because, subconsciously anyway, I knew that Month 3 was going to go down in the books as my first losing month. Which it was.

Month 1 ROI: 34%
Month 2 ROI: 27%
Month 3 ROI: -13%
Month 4 is off to a good start, however, currently at: 29%

YTD ROI: 18% (including travel expenses)
YTD Live bankroll: 112% (ditto)

I have put sums totaling 65% of my bankroll into play over the course of three months. However, I have never put more than 4% of my live 'roll at risk at any one time.

Tournaments are by far my most reliable earners. My live tournament ROI is 72%, and it was solidly positive all three months. Cash games, by contrast, are much more swingy. Although my cumulative ROI for cash games is 36%, I had negative ROIs in Months 1 and 3.

This result is the opposite of most people's conventional wisdom, which is that tournament results are much more variable than those from cash games. I think my stats reflect two things: I've been running average in tournaments and like CRAP (for the most part) in ring games. Also, I've been playing tournaments seriously much longer than I've been playing cash games, and I'm probably still a better tournament player than a cash player.

I expect these two sets of numbers to even out as the year progresses; it will be interesting to see how that goes. To be fair, these are ~ statistically speaking ~ very, even ridiculously, small sample sizes to draw any conclusions from.

As for online, I cashed in a large multi-table big buy-in tournament for the absolute minimum today... but hey, I made it to the money! I am hoping and praying that this is indication of an online results turnaround. What it wasn't, though, was an example of good bankroll management, as the buy-in was not in my price range. It worked out, but it was an excessively risky proposition. (The play was, however, considerably less donkeyesque than at lower buy-ins, and that was refreshing. I am reminded that game selection is key, and that I seem to do better at higher stakes for a variety of reasons.)

I am still waiting on the acquisition of poker tracking software (HINT HINT Poker Academy Prospector beta testing team!) that will allow me to review my online results in a coherent way.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Day 98: Recovery

Slept 15 hours and didn't do much of anything else. Nothing like keeping casino-hours to exhaust a person.

The weather was awful and I stayed inside, where I've spent my time getting crushed online. Honestly, I don't understand why things are going so badly for me online lately. I haven't changed anything, I've been playing the same stakes as before, and I'm getting destroyed where before I was quite successful. My online bankroll's taken such a hit that I'm going to have to move down in stakes now. It's a tad demoralizing.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Day 97: Two Days of Grinding AC

I'm back in the comfort of my own home again. How nice!

The trip to AC was a successful one. Not so much because I came back with oodles of cash, because I didn't. I showed a modest profit, and as my expenses were comped for the trip, it all goes into the bankroll.

But the real success of the trip was endurance under adverse conditions and a new perspective on life at the table. After a jolly start on Friday, things got a little more challenging on Saturday. I moved on up to the 2/5 game, started out very well, and then hit the wall.

It is no exaggeration to say that I proceeded to suffer through twelve hours of being so card dead I couldn't even bluff in position more than a handful of times (the only hands I won) punctuated by the occasional premium hand or lucky flop that proceeded to crush me as I got outdrawn. It was grim.

And you know what? I hung in. I stayed tilt free. And when I suffered a loss I ground it back. While it was hardly a laugh-riot, I do take some pride and enjoyment from the knowledge that I have the mental toughness to persist in the face of adversity. The mistakes I made were seriously outweighed by the very solid game I played over the long haul.

And the long haul was long indeed. I stayed up all night on Saturday, and when the 2/5 game broke up at 6am this morning, I moved back to the 1/2 game. After the higher-level effort required for the 2/5 game, the 1/2 game was positively relaxing. I started having fun again, and booked a win. At about 10am, I went up to my room to shower and pack.

I returned to the poker room and ended the trip with one of the most entertaining poker sessions I've ever played. My 1/2 table was well stocked with donkeys (sure, why not call the 7.5xBB raise with K8 suited!), playing loose and limpy. It was as juicy an opportunity as I've seen. It also dealt me two big blows early on, the most memorable of which was having my AA cracked by the fellow cited in the previous parenthetical. Quoth he: "We're all here to have fun, and it's no fun just sitting and waiting for aces and kings!" ("No, sir," I muttered under my breath, "I'm here to take your money. The fun is just a bonus.")

About half an hour into the session, a massive young man sat to my immediate left. At first, I was put out just because he was exceedingly large and was impinging into my personal space, which is a pet peeve. But he immediately endeared himself to me because, having witnessed the aforementioned AA crackage, he proceeded to deliver sotto voce witticisms about the extremely bad play being demonstrated in every hand. It was immediately obvious to me that this was a genuine student of the game. I would not be the slightest bit surprised to learn he is a regular denizen of online poker circles. It was nice to feel that I had an ally of sorts (aha! it's the DK syndrome!). Despite my fatigue, I was immediately inspired to break out my A game.

That AA hand felted me. With my efforts concentrated by this new voice of reason to my left, and with a sudden strong desire to prove my mettle, I rebought, and with some truly inspired play (and no horrible suckouts) I had bootstrapped myself back to even in about an orbit. The amusing dialog continued. In short order, I was actually up. And, in fact, I was having a tremendous amount of fun.

Alas, the bus waits for none, and I had to head out.

So, the two lessons I learned on this trip were: 1) I can grind it out, if I have to, and b) I can have fun doing it. I hereby resolve to have a hell of a lot more fun. I am going to extravert it up at the tables for a while. I am going to wisecrack, flirt, banter, converse, and generally just socialize myself silly at the table, because grinding is a boring and grim experience on its own. Why not make it less unpleasant if I can?

Any EV I lose, for example, by enlisting a table ally is probably more than compensated for by the enjoyment I derive from it and the likelihood of it keeping me off tilt and on my A game. I think that, if I had stayed longer today, I could probably also have learned something substantial from my neighbor to the left, in addition to having a hell of a good time. Why not recruit coaches and mentors whenever the opportunity arises? And, never fear, I've found that it's possible to do this without giving away much of one's own actual strategy or thought processes.

It was truly notable how many of my tablemates were essentially giving away the store on their 'thinking' (*pft* if you can call it that!) on their hands and strategies. The amount of (mostly wrong) hand analysis that goes on, especially at the 1/2 table where so may feature themselves as poker experts, is astonishing to me. I just sit back, listen, and pay attention to what each of these obvious poker gods is telling me about how he plays. As is my policy, I almost never reveal my hand or on how or why I played as I did. When I do say something, it is almost always a lie with a purpose.

The more time I spend in casinos, the more aware I become of the poker ecology. As a subculture, it has its fascinations. I'm also enjoying the benefits of becoming a regular. The poker room staff recognize me and go out of their way to be helpful. The dealers know my name and some of them can even recite memorable hands they've dealt that I was in. I am learning who the regulars are, and whom I need to stay away from and whom I should seek out. I am something of a creature of habit, and I find this level of familiarity with the territory comforting and conducive to relaxation and my overall equanimity.

It looks likely that I will return to AC for the Circuit Event at Harrahs's in December. While I'll certainly donk it up in a couple of tournaments, the side action at the cash games should be especially tasty.

[My DSL is cycling on and off again. I may be internet disabled again any minute now. Crap!]

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Day 95: Back in Black

Having arrived in AC with very little sleep in the bank, and no immediate access to my room, I chose to sit down at a 1/2 table. Why put a lot of money at risk when you're not at your sharpest?

I played for about an hour and was up 50%. I went and got my room key and took a two-hour nap. (I'm not much of a napper, but I know what's good for me, and I'm making an effort to actually DO what's good for me, right?)

After my little rest, and the belated arrival of my luggage, I showered and changed, grabbed an egg & roasted pepper wrap from Sack O' Subs, and went back to the poker room. Since three hours of sleep plus two hours of sleep is still only five hours of sleep, I elected to play 1/2 again. At one point I had nearly doubled up, but I gave a bit of it back, and ended up cashing out up about 50% again.

I then bought into the midnight tournament, where I busted out eighteenth of sixty. I blame one call I should probably have folded, and then the choice not to go all in with my pocket deuces, with five people in the pot ahead of me, where I would have flopped my set and quintupled up. Oh well. It was a relatively cheap tournament.

And you know what? I just turned November from a losing into a (okay barely, but still!) profitable month. So there.

In those two cash sessions I was playing really solid, dialed-in poker. I was putting people on hands accurately. I was making the right calls, and the right lay-downs. I was paying attention to stack sizes and pot sizes. The table was well-suited to my style of play, without a lot of crazy re-raising pre-flop, and I was able to take advantage of my tight image to steal and bluff every now and then. I think I can say without too much vainglory that for several hours, in that second session, I was clearly the best player at the table.

Also: I didn't run bad. What a difference that makes!

All-in-all, a good start to the stay. After a good night's sleep tonight I should be ready to return to the 2/5 game tomorrow.

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Day 94: Once More Unto the Breach

I'm heading to AC this weekend. I would claim to be entirely unafraid, but that would be only 98.5% true.

The fact is, I've almost recouped my losses from the last trip. I have done well in tournaments, and made a substantial comeback in cash games too. I am no longer wincing with anxiety as I bet out my strong but potentially vulnerable hands. I am ready to take on Demon Variance once again.

So, with another fully comped trip on offer, I'm getting back on the horse again. Say it with me: Ride 'em, Cardgrrl!!

[I'm taking my laptop along, and plan to write and intend to post at least once while I'm on the road. I'm determined to restore my schedule of daily blogging, as I firmly believe that writing is actually one of those things that contributes to my general well-being. Which is rather odd, given my history with writing in the era before blogging ~ but that's a story for another time.]

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A Tale of Two Professionals

When I was in Atlantic City last time, I met two professional poker players. The differences and similarities between them—and me—were striking and, I think, instructive.

The first I met playing at the 2/5 table. I took immediate notice of her, as I usually do, first and foremost because she was another woman. We are still rare enough, especially at tables above the lowest stakes, that there is almost always a mutual acknowledgement of some sort, a lifting of eyebrows, a meeting of glances. She was dressed in Manhattan black, wore a stylish cap, and her hands were well decorated with quite impressive bling. She was Thai, either an immigrant at an early age, or first-generation American. I couldn’t be sure of her age, and later found out that she is around thirty years old.

I was sitting two to her left (the young luckbox who chopped the runner runner boat hand with me was between us). As part of my persona-building misdirection, our end of the table was playing the “guess Cardgrrl’s occupation” game, which started when someone asked if I was a professional player (ugh), which I immediately and emphatically denied. Earlier someone had asked to look at the ring I was wearing. It featured letters of the alphabet, but appeared quite abstract from a distance. (To my great dismay, the ring became a casualty of the trip. It fell off my hand somewhere on my way back from AC. I’m quite cranky about that, as it was handcrafted and a special present to myself from a few years back.) I told the table that the ring was a partial clue to my profession, and this led to guesses like “teacher,” “stenographer,” and the like. The young woman ~ who I’ll call DK ~ asked if I were in medicine.

This turned out to be an interesting projection on her part. It emerged that she herself had trained, all the way through her internship, as a medical doctor. She had quit to play poker full-time (needless to say, to the great initial consternation of her family) a couple of years ago. Since then, she has experienced significant success playing both online and live. (I looked up her stats when I got home and was extremely impressed by her results. Not to say downright envious.) She has also written and thought a lot about the game and about the life of a professional player.

I thoroughly enjoyed sitting along side her and watching her work. Her most salient skill was the ability to make the hero call and pick off bluffs or weak hands. I watched her do it over and over again, in situations where I was quite sure that I would have laid down my hand. I also saw, however, the one time she made the hero call and was felted by a stealth set of fours. Her skill at hand reading was not perfect, and was clearly a high-risk/high-reward proposiiton.

I was both intrigued and surprised by her forthrightness in revealing her professional status at the table. Why would anyone do that, I wondered? Now, clearly, in a circumstance where she is playing with the same regulars over and over, it’s not a big deal. But when fish (such as myself, of course) sit down at the table to gamble it up, why would you put them on alert by letting them know you play poker for a living? There are obviously a subset of fish (like me!) who would enjoy the challenge of going up against a self-described pro. But there have to be just as many, if not more, who will play more cautiously and hence less profitably against you if they have reason to believe you have mad skillz.

The best explanation I’ve been able to come up with since is the simplest: loneliness. As I’ve noted before, poker-playing, despite taking place in a social environment, is a solitary business. I think DK decided to trade off a bit of EV (expected value, a term of art that denotes the profit you expect to make, over time, in a given circumstance) for some camaraderie. She somehow mentally categorized me as “peer,” and was simply enjoying the opportunity to exchange relatively candid views with someone she saw—accurately, I might add—more as a potential pal than a threat. (I considered briefly whether it might have been a meta-move of some kind, utterly Machiavellian, and have ruled that out. We have remained in touch since our meeting, and I can think of no way in which that would serve some kind of venal motive on her part.) Curiously, this puts me in somewhat iffy ethical position, since: a) I actually lied about my status as a poker player and 2) I’m now writing about her (albeit having altered some identifying features) and not linking to her or letting her know about it.

I am coming to appreciate more and more how having some professional poker-playing friends, with whom one is not primarily competitive but rather collegial, can be extremely valuable. With whom else can you talk shop? Who else will really appreciate the peculiar challenges and joys of the poker life? And who else can offer advice that is actually born of relevant experience?

DK apparently has a knack for developing and sustaining this kind of friendship, as the other pro I met was her friend Frank, who had traveled to AC with her. They are not a couple, but their closeness leads many who see them together to think so. Apparently the floor at Harrah’s has asked them not to play at the same cash table together for appearance’s sake! (I can only offer my own intuitive assessment: these are two people who would never in a million years soft-play each other. They are way too fierce competitors and too zealous about the integrity of the game.)

Frank presents a very different personality from DK. Where DK has a laid-back, slow, wry way of speaking, and a languid but elegant table presence, Frank is an in-your-face New York wit. He majors in banter, needling, and table-talk. When he’s at the table, you will pay attention to him. He is a genius at getting people to talk about their hands: their holdings, their decision-making process, their perceptions of others (including him). He is a kind of snake-charmer, but it’s not all sweetness and light, there’s definitely an edge to his humor and his temperament. One suspects that there’s a short fuse there, and it’s clear that suffering fools is a skill he’s still working on, in the interest of his profitability.

Frank is probably the least passive table presence I’ve ever encountered. From the moment he sits down he is shaping his image and working to mould the table’s action to suit his game. He is equally effective in tournaments and in cash games. The intelligence was practically visibly boiling off him like heat waves off the blacktop of his charm. It was a frightening combination of psychological street smarts, mathematical precision, and tactical and strategic savvy.

Honestly, I’d like to just follow Frank around for a week to watch him at work. I don’t think his style is one I could ever directly emulate, but there are definitely things I could learn and incorporate into my own. He riffs very effectively off his individual brand of charisma, for example; that’s something I have occasionally managed to do, more by accident than on purpose, which I’d like to deliberate cultivate as a tool in my arsenal.

If I had to guess, I’d say Frank was in his late thirties. His background? Well, it is to laugh. Frank and I went to the same prestigious Ivy League college. He then went on to Harvard Law School and a high-powered legal career. Which he quit to play poker full-time.

Do we detect a pattern here?

These are really, really bright people. They can and have prospered in highly demanding professional fields. They were both perfectly capable of making plenty of money in mainstream occupations. They gave up security, societal approbation, and the normalcy of the “straight” economy for a life of uncertainty and total self-reliance in the marginal, shadow-world of professional gambling.

I haven’t yet heard the full stories of how they arrived in this life. I am sure each of them has a unique trajectory. But I’d wager I can identify some of the features they’re likely to share in common.

I bet they both have something to prove to themselves and are fiercely competitive. They don’t like being told what to do. They dislike having routine schedules and externally imposed deadlines and goals. They are bored when not faced with fresh challenges and new lessons to learn. They feel that they are outsiders even when they are doing the most insider-y kind of professional work. They have finally lost all patience with the expectations of others, whether actual or internalized, but they have cultivated extremely high standards for themselves to replace them. They want the consequences of their choices to redound to them and to them alone. They are very interested in the motivations and decision-making processes of others. And they have a strong addictive or compulsive element in their personalities.

Does that sound like anyone else we know?


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Day 93: Back on Track

Well. That was interesting.

If you read the 2+2 Forums enough, eventually you will come across the concept of "life tilt." It's usually used in a humorous/exasperated way, extending the notion of "tilt" in poker (playing in a non-optimal way due to an emotional reaction to circumstances) into the rest of life. The phrase "life tilt" is funny in part because it's so clearly used as hyperbole, e.g.: "The way the guy to my right counted out his stack of hundreds by TWOS put me on life tilt." or "My girlfriend's constant hinting about a ring is putting me on life tilt." (Okay, maybe that last one isn't so much hyperbole for the 2+2 demographic.)

So consider this, to begin with, my confession. My confession of the sin of pride.

I have always claimed to tilt less than most poker players I know. Having seen at least my fair share of bad beats (more than my share? don't we all think so?), the miracle card just doesn't faze me that much. Rude comments don't piss me off enough to affect my game. Needling doesn't get to me. Even playing with people I loathe just doesn't put me off my game the way you might think it would. At the poker table I'm pretty thick-skinned and relatively unflappable. When playing alone at home online, I may rant and rave out loud ~ my array of invective can be quite impressive ~ but I like to think that my play remains pretty steady.

So what the hell happened the last couple of weeks?

Life tilt happened.

There was the incredibly frustrating trip to AC. There were some disappointing developments in my personal life. Logistics got the better of me on a few occasions; things I thought were settled ~ over-and-done ~ turned out to be unfinished business. And I was playing poker with a vengeance: way too much and with the wrong motivation (the desire to make up losses). I was not going to the gym, not sleeping enough, eating like a 400 lb. shut-in, and failing to keep enough company with people who love me and vice versa.

I have known for a while now that I am vulnerable to the cumulative effects of multiple stressors. In the last ten years I've had two episodes of fairly severe depression, both brought on by the convergence of several highly stressful events (in one case, for example: a car accident, quitting a job where my supervisor was a nutcase, and the collapse of a relationship all in the space of a couple of months). What I think I've failed to recognize is the much milder version of the same syndrome. There have been no catastrophes in the last couple of weeks, but the stressometer was definitely starting to redline. And I was not taking the proper steps to manage my response. This is classic vicious circle material.

Naming it does not solve the problem, but it's a start. Okay, so I'm pressing the reset button.

Here's the thing: I cannot sustain this experiment without a high level of self-scrutiny and a degree of self-discipline that I'm simple unaccustomed to exercising. And the key to this is management of my emotional well-being. I'm never going to be a poker genius; I don't have the raw talent and I'm not young enough to bake the skills in so that they are purely intuitive. If I'm going to have any edge at all, it's going to have to come from mental and emotional maturity. That means I must make the things that contribute to strengthening that equanimity a priority ~ a priority way ahead of the actual poker-playing.

To play good poker, my head has to be in a good place. And for my head to be in a good place, I have to be leading a good life. Duh, right?

If it's so easy, let's see you do it.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tilted Beyond Recognition

Going through an extremely rough patch here.

Bear with me. It can't go on forever.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Home Internet Connection Hosed

You cannot imagine the number of ways this is messing up my life. So far, no help from tech support. It has already cost me money.

TILT doesn't even begin to cover it. I am so frustrated I am ready to rip someone's lungs out and eat them raw.


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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Day 84: Giving Back


Nothing like winning a big wad of cash to prompt a person to give a bunch of it back. The Crime Scene game hoovered a chunk of winnings out of my pocket tonight with an epic series of donkey plays and suckouts (and some bad decisions on my part too). Back to the grindstone for me!

I've started keeping an even more elaborate spreadsheet for my live games now. I'm tracking my progress by category, and for the first time I have stats on ROI (return on money actually put into play, as opposed to overall bankroll stats).

At almost two and a half months into this adventure, my ROI on live tournaments is +75% and my ROI on live cash games is +20%. Including travel-related expenses, my overall ROI for live play is +14%. (Travel is expensive!)

Is that good? I honestly have no idea what a typical small-stakes professional poker-player's ROI is. I can tell you though, if poker were my sole source of income, I'd have to have a bankroll nearly ten times as large as I do now for this rate of return to generate a genuinely livable sum. And that's if the results are scalable to higher stakes, which I very much doubt.

It will be interesting to compare these numbers to my online stats, whenever I actually manage to get a hold of them.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Day 83: The Road Back

Sorry for the radio silence. I'm working on several new posts, and I've been grinding away extremely industriously at the game, with the goal of restoring my bankroll to its former state of healthy growth.

I'm pleased to report that I'm making progress in that effort. I've been prospering in tournaments and cash games at a decent rate. Last Friday, I cashed in my WSOP subscription series tournament. Tonight I took first of seventeen in my A League's big-buy-in game. I've made a bit playing cash as well.

It's amazing how well I can do when my luck doesn't totally suck.

I still have some more catching up to do, but it's nice to feel that I'm on my way. I have been being a tad fanatical about the effort, though, and I think I'd be wise to ease up and remember that I have other tasks to accomplish as well (such as writing here for you fine folks, my readers).

Combined online and live bankroll: 107%

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Not a Blog About But Politics, But...

...tomorrow is election day.

I am not going to tell you for whom I'm going to vote, or for whom you ought to vote. We're a poker blog here.


This is an election that positively, absolutely matters. So take a page from the poker book, and go practice making the best decision you know how on something that is actually very important.

And if, on Wednesday morning, you feel you have suffered a bad beat, take ANOTHER page from the poker book and play on anyway. There is no game if we do not participate and play by the rules. The same is true of our civil society.

Be a good citizen tomorrow and vote. Be a good citizen the day after by continuing to engage in dialog with people with whom you disagree and by working peacefully and positively toward the goals you believe in.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day 75: Still Standing

It helps that I came home and won a tournament in my A League right away. It doesn't help that I continue to run bad online.

But let me be clear: I tilt, but not for long. The Day 74 rant is history. When all is said and done, it was only a 2.5 buy-in downswing. Just not that big a deal, and nothing I can't recover from handily, in due time.

The real take-away from the experience is not yet another reminder about how frustrating being at the mercy of probability can be. The take-away is about everything but the cards: getting enough sleep, eating well, quitting a session when quitting is what's called for, and continuing to make optimal decisions when anyone else would be breaking out an uzi or a strong rope.

Poker is a mental game. It is all about using your head and trusting your gut. I remind myself that I am privileged to learn these lessons at manageable stakes. Acquiring the mental toughness and consistency to excel over the long haul ~ so that luck becomes irrelevant ~ is the hard part, and I believe it is ultimately what separates the recreational (and losing) player from the pro.

If I have one thing going for me, it is that I am resilient. I am also stubborn as hell, especially when I think I'm doing what's right. I am highly competitive and I am not easily beaten down. I've got some serious stamina; I regularly outlast much younger people at the table.

What I'm trying to say is that the latest unpleasantness, far from persuading me that this whole enterprise is a bad idea and I ought to just give up and move on to something more rewarding, has ~ to the contrary ~ quite hardened my resolve. I will learn more, prep better, observe more closely, choose more wisely, persist, and eventually prevail. I know I have it in me. It is a matter of doing what is necessary, and of ~ above all ~ discipline.

It intrigues me, at this stage of my life, to have come across an activity that truly stirs my ambition. It's actually something of a novelty to me to be so highly motivated. I am not a spectacularly naturally gifted poker player. I don't have a photographic memory, or an especially mathematical mind. I'm not particularly good at manipulation or deception. But I am a quick study, and I do have a certain ear for people's emotional pitch, and I am acquiring heretofore unknown degrees of emotional flexibility and behavioral adaptability.

Poker is a great teacher, and what it teaches you most of all is who you are and who you could be. For this, I am already grateful.

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Day 74: Scorched Earth and Other Signs of Destruction

When things are going well, it's difficult to remember how awful it feels when things go badly. And, conversely, when everything is going to shit, it's difficult to remember what life was like when things were easy and pleasant. In fact, I maintain, except for the very most highly evolved persons, virtually impossible.

This trip to Atlantic City was a classic arc. Things started out pretty well. I went deep in a tournament or two. I was up a couple of hundred bucks at the cash table. I was flirting with my tablemates, with the dealers, the floor staff ~ let's be honest and say just about everyone ~ and they were flirting right back. Fun was being had by all concerned. The cards, while not spectacular, were well within normal and acceptable parameters. Poker was being played. And life was good.

(I add, on an entirely and purely personal note, that one cannot truly claim to have lived, as a poker player, until one has closed down a cash table in a casino and proceeded, whilst stone cold sober, to make out with the player immediately to one's left, as the dealer sits by and does his or her best not to hear or see anything. The entertainment value alone of this experience is enormous, quite apart from any other enjoyment that may be derived from it.)

And so one quite naturally thinks to oneself, "things are going swimmingly, yea verily I shall extend my stay in this paradise of gaming, where the rooms are cheap or free, the people pleasant and accommodating, and the cash runs like milk and money, err, honey."

But no paradise is without its snake, no rose without its thorn. Or, if you are me, your paradise becomes a snake pit, and your rosebush becomes a thicket of thorns without a bloom of any sort.

That horrible, perhaps unfamiliar, but indisputably ominous creaking noise you hear in the background, is the sound of the doomswitch being pulled from the OFF position to the ON position. You don't know it, yet, but you are FUCKED. Everything that was fun and good is now going to become very, very unfun and very, very bad. It's as if the Apocalypse had five horsemen, not four, and the guy after Death (Death’s really, really mean older brother) is coming specifically for you. Did I mention: really, really not good?

You will go through the stages of grieving. You will deny. You will rage and you will make stupid decisions. You will bargain. You will be very, very depressed. And eventually you will accept. Or you will kill yourself.

You know, one or the other.

In short: you will tilt. Welcome to my world.

I can tell you exactly when it all started to go south. It began innocently enough with a run of bad cards. Everybody has them, it’s no big deal. Patience is all that’s required, right?

Lots and lots and lots of patience. HOURS of patience. I cannot possibly enumerate the number of times I folded 9 2 offsuit and its ilk. I am told that premium hands were to be had during this stretch of time, but I can assure you, they were not to be had by me. After a while, and I mean a LONG while, non-premium hands of the vaguely connected and suited sort start to look like pocket aces. So, in the course of several hours, I played a few of those, with decidedly uninteresting results.

Time to mix it up, says I to myself.

I am in the cut-off (one seat to the right of the dealer button). Six people limp in to the pot with the minimum opening bet pre-flop. I look down at 10 8 of clubs. In my state of diminished capacity, it looks like gold to me. Suited and connected, by god! I feel frisky and daring. I raise to four times the big blind. The idea was, I would get to play for a biggish pot, against one or two people, with a hand that had possibilities against likely callers.

Now normally what would happen here is that something like half or more of the field would fold. Generally, people who limp into a pot are not terribly excited about their hand. A big raise is likely to scare them off.

This is not, however, what happened in this case. No indeed. Every one of the limpers called my raise. We are playing 2/5, so there is now $150 in the middle and I have a hand of dubious value, at best.

And then the clouds parted, and angels sang (I thought). The flop came 10 of diamonds, 8 of spades, 8 of hearts. Yes, dear friends, I flopped a full house. The phrase “I couldn’t believe my eyes” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I actually double-checked my hole cards, because I thought I couldn’t possibly be so lucky. But, lo and behold, it was so. I was in possession of the second nuts (the second best possible hand, after pocket 10s for the bigger full house).

And it got better. The first two limpers checked the flop. The third limper made a bet of $50. The fourth limper folded. And the charming fellow to my immediate right, a delightful young man who was a reasonably skilled player and fun to talk with to boot, pushed all in for about $320.

My god, what could be better?!? I am worried about one and only one possible hand, and if he had pocket tens in the hijack (two to the right of the button), I very much doubt he would have failed to raise pre-flop. My only concern now is to make sure that anyone with an overpair who may have limped pre-flop hoping to re-raise — like maybe the guy who just bet $50 — does not get a chance to draw to a bigger full house than mine.

This is an easy problem to solve: I shove for my whole stack, about $530. Obligingly, the third limper folds, leaving me heads up with the guy to my right. I get a rebate of $210, the amount more of money I had than he did.

I turn my hand over. He sheepishly shows the 7 8 of diamonds. He has trip eights. "I folded a ten," announces the guy who led out for $50. My heart swells with gladness. Both my patience and my creative daring are about to pay off. With two cards to come, I cannot be beaten.

Quoth he, “I need runner runner overcard pair for a chop.” The table laughs and groans. The probability of this happening is something on the order of .05%. I’d like to think the heat death of the universe will come sooner, but I know for a fact that is not true.

How, you ask?

Turn: King of hearts.

River: King of spades.

Perfect, perfect for the chop.

Yes, friends, I chopped this pot. I didn’t lose it, I will grant you. The two of us each made a little bit of profit from the money that others had already committed.

But I could not outright win a pot that I was the overwhelming, PROHIBITIVE FAVORITE to win. And that, folks, was the beginning of the end.

Before that, I was card dead. After, I was card crucified. Before that, I couldn’t get any traction. After that, I got my money in good and got bad-beated so many times that people were commiserating in hands with me before it even happened, because they knew it would.

For the following forty-eight hours, until I finally slunk out of the casino at 3 am this morning, it was carnage. I lost at the cash table, I lost at tournaments. The quality of my play definitely suffered, and I didn’t quit soon enough in a couple of sessions, but honestly, no matter whether I played well or badly, I was just going to get killed. It was only a question of whether I would lose my money quickly or slowly.

The hand that stuck a fork in me and let me know I was truly done went as follows.

It limps to me on the button. I have A 5 suited: again, not a monster, but one of the better hands I’ve seen in 48 hours. I raise the standard table raise of four times the blind. It folds around to one guy who limped in, and he calls.

The flop comes A 3 4, with two of my suit. For those of you following along, that means not only do I have top pair (aces), but I also have a draw to a straight and a draw to the nut flush. Let’s count the outs: 9 flush cards and 3 non-club deuces is 12 (or 15 if we believe that the remaining 3 fives will give us a winning hand if we get our second pair). Suffice it to say, this is a pretty good situation. Most of the time, we are favored to win if the other guy has an ace in his hand. He will need to pair his other card or the board in a suit other than ours and have a better kicker.

He bets out nine times the big blind on the flop. Bingo! We think it likely he has an ace. (Given his previous behavior when holding an ace, this seems like a reasonable assumption.) We hope very much it is a good ace, so that he will call when we proceed to raise him another fifteen times the big blind.

He calls our raise. While this causes a small twinge of anxiety, basically we rejoice. We are building the pot with what is likely to wind up the best hand.

Turn card is the queen of spades. Okay, no flush draw for him, and no flush (yet) for me. Did he have a queen for A Q two-pair? Apparently not, because it went check-check on the turn. (Should I have bet here? I thought it prudent to take a free card, still drawing to my flush, straight, or second pair, and exercise some pot control.)

The river is the 5 of hearts. Icing on the cake, baby! My flush didn’t materialize, but I have two pair. He bets out, I re-raise, and he shoves for about half the pot’s worth more. My heart sinks. I am fucked again, somehow.

Was I outplayed by a flopped set, or did he have pocket 5s? Did he slowplay his A Q?

Hell no! He called a thirty dollar re-raise on the flop with A 2 offsuit. And was the lucky beneficiary of a three-outer on the river for the wheel (an ace through five straight). Which river, of course, just happened to give me my second pair, pretty much ensuring that I’d call — although, to be honest, it was a crying call. (I didn’t expect to be beaten by the deuce, I must say. I thought for sure I was going down to a set.)

And that was enough for me. Not only did my hands not hold up, my good hands all became snares and delusions, perfectly devised to trap me into parting with more of my money while revealing my opponents to be people who made really bad decisions. And prospered by them. (Oh, how I both envied and despised them!) I was so desperate, shell-shocked, and disbelieving (surely, OMG, not again!) that I had become a pay-off wizard.

As I was turning my chips in at the cage (what few chips remained of multiple rebuys — yes, I rebought, because I believed that somehow, some way, I would actually get paid off rather than outdrawn, silly naive girl that I am), another player came up behind me. “Say,” he said, “weren’t you playing in that 2/5 game where that guy went runner runner for the bigger boat.” Yes, I said. The young dealer waiting behind him to pick up a rack of whites piped up, “Hey, I heard about that! And I have to say, I’ve never seen anyone take more bad beats in a row than this woman.”

That’s me, a legend in my own time. (I may have laughed bitterly.) When casino personnel are talking about you in pitying tones, you know you’ve had a bad run.

I’m telling you, you have to have a mind of winter to play this game. Because it will kick your ass. Hard. My bankroll took a big fat hit. I am still ahead, but now very little indeed. Two days undid most of two months. Evidently, losing is a much more efficient proposition than winning.

Yeah, poker is fun, baby. Lots and lots of fun. Now, where did I leave that cyanide?

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