Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

One Simple Test to Determine If You Are Playing Above Your Bankroll

...If it makes you angry when a player draws against odds and gets there.

If you are playing within your bankroll, this should bring a gentle smile of delight to your lips (accompanied perhaps by a mental fistpump and exclamation of "Yahtzee!!!"). You should be able to deliver a sincere-sounding complement to the fish, reach into your wallet ~ virtual or ortherwise ~ and reload with a song in your heart.

If you cannot do these things when an inferior player wins a hand, or when you get your money in good and you're just outdrawn, you are either way too prone to tilt, playing at limits that you are not comfortable with, or both.

Move down in stakes and learn to meditate.

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For old time's sake...

...I just played a few hands in a mid-limit "cash" game on Poker Academy Online.

The room was filled with French players donking it up. The play was so incredibly bad, I mean MIND-BOGGLINGLY BAD, that it's impossible to imagine anyone could learn anything from it.

I need to check out the highest limit (PAX, of course) room again one evening, just to calibrate against my current cash game skills. Because either the players in general have gotten a whole lot worse, or I've gotten a whole heck of a lot better.

Microstakes online for real money is much more demanding than what I saw in that room. Just super-duper terribad.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Move Over, Machiavelli

“It is best to be both feared and loved; however, if one cannot be both it is better to be feared than loved.” Niccollò Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532.

I first started playing poker seriously in a free tournament (hosted by the National Pub Poker League) at a restaurant in Arlington, VA. I was having dinner with a friend, and I noticed people setting up poker tables in another part of the room. I had first played Texas Hold’em with a by-then-ex-boyfriend, and had already caught poker fever, but had no outlet for it. I’m afraid I spent a good portion of that dinner craning my neck curiously and wistfully toward the poker tables. The next week I was there, ready to play, nervous and excited.

I placed third out of forty-two my very first tournament. And my fate was sealed.

It took me awhile to place again. But I became a regular, made a bunch of poker-playing friends, and started to really learn the game. On Tuesdays, I would arrive early to get my preferred seat at my favorite non-smoking table, order dinner, and wait for the lambs to come to slaughter.

One evening, as I wiped the last of my dinner from my lips, I watched as two or three guys in succession made their way toward my table only to pull up short and veer off at the last minute as they realized it was me. The last one, a guy who I’d watched improve a lot over the previous few months, said, “I’d like to sit with you, Cardgrrl, but I’d also like to make the final table. See you there!”

The surge of satisfaction I experienced upon hearing these words cannot be properly conveyed. I felt powerful, wise, and permanent. I was feared, and it was good.

Women’s liberation and the feminist movement in general notwithstanding, women in our culture are still brought up to want — first and above all — to be loved. We are encouraged to do everything possible to be desirable, acceptable, and emotionally unthreatening. We are taught to avoid or swiftly resolve conflict, not to engage it, take it on, or god forbid escalate it. Few men, for example, would put "intimidating" high on the list of desirable attributes in a mate. (It was, in fact, a source of some consternation to me throughout my youth that people did sometimes characterize me as intimidating, especially since I had no intention of being so, nor could I really understand why others perceived me that way.)

But it turns out that, at the poker table, Machiavelli is right. It is better to feared than loved, if you have to choose between the two. This is especially true in tournaments. Tournaments are all about survival and domination, about putting your opponents to the test. If you cannot occasionally move an adversary off a hand when you need to, for example, you are utterly at the mercy of your cards and you are essentially playing bingo, not poker. Predictable behavior is not frightening: the bogeyman does not publish a schedule of his daily activities. He jumps out of the shadows, or emerges unexpectedly in the mundane environment of the laundromat (say), and wreaks bloody havoc. That’s scary. The tyrant does not forgive and forget, or pursue civil justice under the rule of law: he punishes his enemies (and the occasional innocent, just because) all out of proportion to their sins against him, and shows up with the secret police pounding on the door in the middle of the night. That’s intimidating.

While there are some benefits to having people like you (you may gain information, you may be given the benefit of the doubt, you may even get a break when you’re behind), they pale in comparison to the advantages gained by striking fear into your opponents’ hearts. I suppose if you could really somehow persuade your table mates that you were a harmless dumb bunny who was just getting lucky over and over that might be ideal. But realistically, that’s only going to work for awhile. Sooner or later any observant opponent is going to put two-and-two together and then, no matter how charming and careless you may appear, the fear and doubt are going to begin to set in. And then you have them.

In a cash game, the trick becomes how not to scare them so badly that they take their money and run away (which is why fear is especially useful in tournaments, where the sheep who fear fleecing cannot request a table change and only get up and leave when they bust out). Misdirection and charm are helpful: consider the table talk deployed so skillfully by a player like Daniel Negreanu, or the goofy but entertaining banter of Phil Laak. Even the obnoxious behavior of famous bad boys of poker like Mike “The Mouth” Matusow and Phil Hellmuth probably serves the same purpose: “Pay no attention to how well I’m playing, get aggravated at my annoying antics instead!”

The Prince must retain initiative and control, and be both feared and respected; these qualities serve the poker player equally well.

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I Hate Online Poker

Outdrawn and coolered until my eyes bleed. I honestly don't know why I bother.

Apparently there are some people who actually earn their livings playing online poker... even tournaments. Honestly, for the life of me, I don't know how.

The last month or so has been a relentlessly miserable experience. I think I'll go drink now.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Day 128: Not a creature was stirring...

...including the Cardgrrl, who is still recovering from her AC trip and not in any shape for festivities. Nonetheless, I wish all of you A Merry Holiday Of Your Choice.

I am spending the evening quietly getting coolered by ridiculous hands on Pokerstars. It's my present to myself.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Day 127: Veni, Vidi, Vici

At the tournament table, at least. (Cash, not so much.)

This latest AC trip was a resounding success, to my boundless surprise, because I ended up doing very well in the tournaments I played. Who'd have thunk it?

On Sunday night I finished first of 45, and on Monday night I chopped the win three ways (for better than second-place money) in a field of 46. I need hardly try to convey the deep level of satisfaction this afforded me. Finally! A little tourney justice in AC.

This tournament is hardly a world-class event, to be sure. The buy-in is $68+12. You start with a 10K chipstack, and blind levels start at 50-100 and go up every 20 minutes. If you go all the way to the end, you'll play for about 6 hours.

My buddy JK came in second in the Monday afternoon tourney, which was great. The glorious thing was that, on the VERY FIRST HAND of the Monday night tourney, I felted the guy who had beaten him out for first. (The guy played K3 offsuit for my 3.5BB raise and lost to my AK on a flop of AK3. Heee hawwww!) Alas, it also fell to me to dispatch JK on a cointoss later in the Monday night game when my 88 held up against his AQ. I arrived at the final table with 25% of the chips in play.

For future reference, here's why you should seriously consider chopping, if a chop is offered to you. In the first tournament, when we got down to 3 and were roughly even in chips, I proposed a chop. Two of us were for it, the third guy, a young Korean dude, was not. So we played on. The other guy, who had been chip leader, got knocked out. Now I'm heads-up with Korean dude, I have him outchipped, and because of his pissy attitude I am totally not interested in chopping it up with him. Three hands later, I've won and he's got less money than he would have had if we'd chopped it three ways. Fool. By contrast, we arrived at a three-way chop agreement very quickly on Monday night: me, another woman, and a canny senior citizen.

It's a good thing I did so well in the tournaments, because I took a beating in the cash games. There were a couple of reasons for that. First, I was relegated to 1/2. There weren't a whole lot of tables running, so I didn't have any choice on table selection, and one of my tables was half regular sharks and half rocks. NO action. The other two times I played were after the tourneys, and I was hopped up on adrenalin and exhausted... not the ideal time to play to begin with. Plus I got brutally coolered about three times. So, meh. Not my best cash performance.

On the upside: it was 1/2, and being down a buy-in and a half at 1/2 is not as big a deal as being down a buy-in at 2/5.

Overall, another very profitable trip to AC. My month is off to a rockin' start.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Day 124: A Day Off, Mostly

So yesterday I wound up playing a microstakes live game all night long. It was great fun, and I made more than 6x my money in profit, so I guess I file that under "time well spent" despite the addition of yet another all-nighter to my log.

All I can say is, I hope that my recent live game results continue in the same vein. I am prepared to imagine that I'm just running really good. Of course, the mind plays tricks on itself and would prefer to believe that I've rounded some kind of major intellectual/intuitive corner and I'm now a poker genius (at least compared to my current competition). This does seem, however, inherently unlikely.

I'd be more persuaded of my godessy goodness if I weren't doing just HORRIBLY online. I couldn't qualify in the WBCOOP. I can't book a profit in a sit'n'go, in a ring game, or even anything more than the most pathetic cash in my ulitmate game, Razz. You know things are effed up when I can't win at Razz! I mean, COME ON.

My current plan is to just pretend that all online poker is as rigged as this looks.

I am currently doing my traditional Last Minute Laundry in preparation for my return to AC tomorrow. I was supposed to go play a couple of tourneys in my A League this evening in Manassas, but I just couldn't face all that driving on the pathetically small amount of sleep I got, nor could I feature packing without a proper selection of clean clothes from which to choose.

I think I've mentioned before that, ironically, I dress for the poker table much more fastidiously than for any other regularly scheduled activity. For some reason, I find it helpful to put on the armor of nice clothing and even ~ gasp ~ make-up (war paint?). Only those who've known me for a long time will appreciate how genuinely bizarre (for me) this impulse is. Yet I do it, and ~ surprisingly ~ I do it with some genuine pleasure. I honestly can't account for it. I suppose, in part, it makes me feel more professional. Whatever. But it does mean that packing is a little more involved an enterprise than it used to be.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Once more unto the breach...

...dear friends!

Looks like I'm heading back to AC sooner than expected. I'll be traveling with previously mentioned poker-playing friend and worthy heads-up opponent JK and his visiting buddy.

I'll be curious to see what kind of action there is in the poker room on a Sunday and Monday night before Christmas. I don't have particularly high hopes, I must say, but there weren't a lot of comp rooms available otherwise, so I took what I could get. The company should make up for any shortfall in poker profit.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Day 120: A Royal Success

Any day you make a royal flush and get paid is a damn good day.

I had a damn good day today.

I chopped my A League tournament. And I played in the Crime Scene game for a profit, including the royal flush draw (up and down) that I flopped and then saw completed on the river. I didn't make a lot on that hand, and I forgot to take a photo, but it was still a thrill.

I also almost pulled off the bluff of the century. Instead, I got bluffed myself, but I got the bluffer to show his hand after I folded and now I know what he looks like when he's raising light, or with air — a tell I was able to use extremely effectively in a subsequent hand and which will be good, I presume, for the foreseeable future. Whatever I lost acquiring that information was well worth the cost.

The best thing about the night's play, though, was that I played without any substantial error in both the tournament and the cash game. I did what I knew was right and I didn't get punished for it, which was nice.

I don't expect to play live tomorrow, which means that today closed out Month 4 for my live-play account. I had what I consider to be a very successful month. If I could truly sustain this level of profitability month after month, I could call myself a professional poker-player, and I could live (quite modestly) on my poker income.

Which would be AWESOME.

My ROI on live tournaments for the month: 0% (would have been 78% if I hadn't played the Circuit Event)
My ROI on live cash games for the month: 63%
Combined live ROI for the month: 56%

My combined live ROI to-date: 31%
My current live bankroll (including expenses): 124%

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Day 119: Wiped

Ooo, I'm so tired. Really, really tired.

It used to be rumored that casinos pumped pure oxygen through their air conditioning systems to keep people awake and gambling. This has been debunked because a) it would be a huge fire hazard and 2) it would cost way too much, and c) it doesn't work. Casinos do a fine job of keeping people gambling using other highly effective behavior-modification techniques.

Personally, I think they lace the air with meth. That's my theory anyway. All I can say is: it would explain a lot.

Like how I seem to be the energizer bunny for days on end, and then two hours after I leave the casino I hit THE WALL and am a basket case for days.


As you may have gathered, I had a profitable trip to AC.

Friday: berry berry good, as previously discussed.

Saturday: Ugh. The Ladies Circuit Event was frustrating. We started with 5000 chips, 30 minute blind levels, antes began at level 5. After the dinner break I had an average chipstack and an M of 5. At that point there were still three tables left and we were already in shovefest mode.

I played my very best poker all tournament long, despite having little to work with, card-wise. I finally got it all in with the best hand I'd seen all day ~ QQ, and lost on the river to AK. That crippled me badly, and I finally went out when the card that made my K9 two pair gave my opponent the runner runner straight. Feh. I was 22 of 176, four from the money. Ten and a half hours of work for zippo.

I then sat down at a 1/2 table and proceeded to not win a bunch more. Just couldn't get any traction. Honestly, I probably shouldn't have been playing at that point, as I was still suffering with this headcold and I was tired from the long tournament day. I didn't do anything egregiously bad, but I wasn't at my best either.

Sunday: Got up and, dig this, went and worked out in the hotel fitness center. Words cannot express what an excellent idea this was. Worked up a sweat, got the blood flowing to my brain, and staved off deep vein thrombosis. I am committed to doing this on every casino trip from now on. Maybe even more than once. I am quite persuaded that the excellent day's results were at least somewhat related to the exercise. I played 2/5 for about twelve hours, with breaks for nutritious meals. I could probably safely have omitted the final four hours, as I went pretty card dead and probably only made an additional $100 in that timeframe. My folding became a source of much complaint at the table. I was sitting behind a pretty substantial stack and they all obviously wanted a whack at it. Which I denied them.

When I am not beyond exhausted, I'll try to post on one notable hand (where I got lucky) and one poker-theory debate that came up at the table.

Two overview points, though. The first is that my live game continues to improve. I can feel it ~ and it's nice to think it's showing up in my results. I am so much more comfortable at the table now, it's marvelous to me. I want to say: I feel like a native in poker land, not a visitor anymore. And second, as a native, I'm enjoying putting into practice the more social persona I discussed a while back. I've had some really enjoyable times chatting with other hardcore poker players at the table, laughing it up or exchanging views. I have "recruited" allies in this way, and it may have saved or even made me money. Regardless of the direct impact on profit, it's made being at the table more pleasurable, and reduced the kind of boredom or frustration tilt that's likely to be expensive.

I finally played again with poker pro F., the man who taught me "never show" three years ago. (I'll share that story with you sometime soon.) He jokingly pretended not to recognize me at first, but of course he ~ like most serious poker-players ~ has a very good memory for people he's played with before, and the circumstances. Today, when I sat down to play 1/2 for a few hours before leaving AC, I gave up a pot to him when I paid him off for the flush I KNEW HE HAD after I made my nut straight on the river. (Leak alert!!!!) Honestly, though, I almost felt like I owed it to him for the advice he gave me way back then, which stuck with me and has served me very well ever since.

Poker tables (like most places, come to think of it) are liberally populated with assholes. There are also some very interesting and really nice folks. I'm enjoying meeting the latter, and tolerating the former is a small price to pay for the privilege.

I LOVE MY JOB. If I could consistently make it pay the way it did this weekend, I could make a career of it.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Day 116: Like Taking Candy From Babies

Wow, I had the most beautiful 1/2 table at Harrah's this evening.

I'm still a sick puppy, with a head full of phlegm like you wouldn't believe, so I decided I didn't want to stress myself out tonight playing 2/5. I wanted to have a nice, relaxing few hours of poker, then retire to my room and get a lovely night's sleep in preparation for tomorrow's tournament. I thought sitting down and putting a big buy-in at risk amongst decent players would not be soothing, although it might be both interesting and potentially profitable. My main thought was: there are going to be a lot of tournament players donking it up at 1/2; why not visit the fish pond and just drop a line over the side?

And so I did.

The guy to my left told me about every single one of his hands. Every. Single. One. He was ridiculously loose and just a catalog of bad habits and tells. He kept explaining to me how he always wins online. "I raise, I bluff, they fold!" Yeah, buddy, whatever. I proceeded to call him down with 10s on a 993 flop despite his massive re-raise. His heart was beating a mile a minute and I knew I had him. He eventually showed AK.

I spotted the rocks, the TAGs, and the mice. I dodged the couple of good players and then basically took everyone else to the cleaners. It was just really, really easy. (It helped, as always, that I didn't get massively outdrawn at any point.)

As a result, I completely covered my buy-in for the tournament tomorrow, my travel expenses, and profited an additional sweet chunk of change on top of that. This means I'm essentially free-rolling the tournament, and I can play without any any money-angst whatsoever, which will be really nice.

And if I bust out, who cares? The poker room was jammed full of people. They were running FIVE TABLES OF 2/5 (which in my experience is unheard of at Harrah's). They even had a full 5/10 table! So if things don't go my way in the tournament, why I'll just mosey on back down to the poker room and play cash all day and night.

The prospect makes me giddy, frankly.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Trippus Interruptus

Well, this is not going as planned.

I overslept after a bad night with a nasty new headcold. Then I had to run to the pharmacy to get much needed medications before the bus trip. That took longer than I thought.

It was pouring with rain. I was not able to get a taxi in a timely fashion, and I got soaking wet. Perfect for a person with a cold.

I was looking at the 4pm bus, and not getting to AC until 9 at night. I decided to give it up and stay home tonight, get a good night's rest, and try again tomorrow.

Feh. Hope I feel better, because I sure feel lousy tonight.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Future of Poker

Ante Up, Human!

Limit is easier to model mathematically than no-limit. But there are already bots that play pretty decent no-limit hold'em. Which is one reason why I prefer to sit in a casino and look my (human) opponents in the face.


Day 114: Can't Keep A Good Woman Down

After the smack-around I took on Sunday at the very short-handed Crime Scene game, I was most anxious to return and restore balance, honor, dignity, and wholesomeness to the universe before heading to Atlantic City tomorrow.

And this I did last night. I went in there and schooled their asses. I know it is wrong to gloat. Wrong wrong wrong. And yet, I feel OBLIGED TO GLOAT. Played goot, didn't get bad-beated to speak of, and ~ most famously ~ executed a re-raise on the river with air that won me a giant hand. I was pretty sure that my opponent was weak himself, but my min-raise into a ginormous pot looked exactly like the value-bet of someone with a full house, and my table image kept the man from calling the very small extra amount just to look me up. (I would surely have called there, given the size of the pot. Yeah, I'm paying you off if you have me beat.) The ability to make a move like this is one reason I never show.

I know we are not supposed to be results oriented, but it sure is nice to plump up ye olde bankrolle in advance of my trip. I know we're not supposed to let results dictate our emotional state, but it sure feels good to head out on a winning note. Someday, I hope, I'll be more mature than this.

But until then: HAH!

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Whither Poker Academy?

I have noticed with some dismay that Poker Academy's online presence appears to have vanished from the intertubes. If anyone has any idea what's going on, please drop me a comment or an email.

I don't play on Poker Academy Online very often anymore. I'm too busy donking it up live and online for real money. But I credit PA for feeding my initial interest in poker, helping me learn in a safe environment, and introducing me to some wonderful people who play poker (including my dear brother bastin who, now that he knows how to do links, really oughta go back through his previous entries mentioning me and LINK ME UP, DUDE).

I hope to hear that PA is up and running again sometime soon.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Day 112: Ungroovy Miscellany

Let's see:

The online debacle continues. I cannot win online at the moment. NOTHING I do prospers. Can't win playing tight, can't win playing loose. Can't win with made hands, can't win with draws. Can't win. Can. Not. Win.

The lack of winning online is annoying.

I played in the Crime Scene game on Sunday and had another of those days that resemble nothing so much as... a day of playing online. Aaaaagh! Again with the not winning.

I console myself mightily with the observation that I am still meaningfully up. I am. I am UP. Nothing can take that away from me. (I mean, other than a serious downswing. Blech.)

It would be nice, very nice, to have one big winning session here before I head to AC on Thursday for the Circuit events. I could use the morale boost in preparation for the battle.

It has always been part of my Grand Strategy to have one substantial live tournament win during this year. The theory is I'll have a much easier job pitching my book to the publishing community if I can point to a high-profile tournament victory. Why would anyone care about my observations on poker and life if I can't win at poker, right? And no one really cares if you are a successful cash player. Tournaments are what get televised, and so they are what people know.

In the meantime, the rest of my life continues to offer up alternately wildly fun and unbelievably idiotic episodes. I am sparing you, my dear readers, the particulars, but suffice it to say that certain gentlemen and certain members of my family are totally batshit insane. (Not at the same time. You know what I mean. Stop that!)

Nevertheless, and despite the various aggravations, I would be remiss if I did not emphasize that my life ~ ramshackle as it may be ~ is far more enjoyable now than it has been in many, many years. I am still not doing everything I want to be doing, but at least I am doing SOME of the things I want to be doing and many, many fewer of the things I don't want to be doing. This is a net win, bigtime. (Every time I decline to a do a job I don't want to do, I feel like superwoman. If I'd known saying "no," was this fun, I'd have started doing it a long time ago.)

I do have the occasional moment when I wonder if I am completely out of my mind myself. There is no doubt that this year is a slightly eccentric undertaking (to put it politely). It's entirely possible that I'll have less than nothing to show for it in the end. I don't think I will, but it is possible. Even in that case, though, I don't think I'll be swamped with regret. On some level, this was a journey I felt I simply had to take.

Thanks for coming along!

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Let the Shilling Begin...

Online Poker

I have registered to play in the PokerStars World Blogger Championship of Online Poker!

The WBCOOP is an online Poker tournament open to all Bloggers.

Registration code: 156182

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On Money (1st of many)

Money in poker is not like money in any other context. Money is both the medium and the message. I’d like to say that, in poker, money is post-modern. Let us, therefore, deconstruct some of the roles of money in the context of the game.

Money in poker is like a zen koan or a taoist aphorism: you have to simultaneously care and not care about it. This is, as you might imagine, preposterously difficult to do.

Most of us, if we were raised by reasonably responsible parents, actually care a good deal about money. We have some sense of the value of money: x amount of money is a dinner out, y amount of money is a month’s rent or mortgage payment, z amount of money is a year of college tuition or a car. We worry about money, we make budgets, we scrimp and save for desired expenditures, we have JOBS (for heaven’s sake!) so that we can pay our bills and provide for our families. We plan for retirement. We look with smug pity at people who paid full retail for something we got on sale.

Conversely, however, if we are well-balanced individuals, we don’t care too much about money. There are definitely things we wouldn’t do for any amount of money. We tend to be appalled by people whose sole goal in life is the accumulation of wealth. It’s not for nothing that we are familiar with the phrases “filthy lucre” and “money-grubbing.” We are concerned about laying waste to our powers, “getting and spending.” And there’s a world of difference between an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage and the kind of profiteering and exploitation that has stocked the bank accounts of the world’s wealthy.

People’s lives are definitively shaped by their relationship to money: an early experience of poverty or excess, for example, can have a profound effect on a person’s personality and life goals. Marriages are often strengthened or broken depending on the degree to which the spouses have compatible views on how to manage money. Businesses big and small, and indeed whole societies, rise and fall with their ability to keep money flowing in healthy and constructive ways. There is just no getting around it: money matters. A lot.

Now, welcome to the poker table.

At the poker table, we use money to keep score. We use money to communicate with the other players. We use money as a tool and a weapon. It may seem as if winning money is the object of the game—and of course on some level it is—but actually, the goal of the game is to consistently make decisions that will lead to the greatest possible expected value. My goal is not to win this pot, although that would be nice. My goal is to play this pot in such a way that, if I did it this way every time I encountered these circumstances, in the long run I would maximize my profit. This is a very different proposition, and while it concerns probability it is in no way about gambling. (This is hard concept to grasp. We will return to it again and again.)

The multiple roles that money plays in a poker game have some strange repercussions.

I will never forget the first time I sat down in a casino to play poker for money. Despite having played in small stakes home games, and online (for amounts ridiculously beyond my bankroll, in retrospect), the first time I pulled out $200 ACTUAL DOLLARS to buy into the $1/$2 game, my hands were shaking and I felt vaguely queasy. I don’t think my hands stopped shaking that entire first session, and I’m pretty sure I came close to fainting when I had pocket aces and made a raise to OH MY GOD TWENTY DOLLARS!!!

Even Monopoly, which is purportedly a game all about making money, has the good sense to make most of the action in the game involve moving a gamepiece around a board and collecting cards. In poker, the way we distract ourselves from what seems to be the inherent lunacy of PLAYING WITH MONEY AS IF IT WERE A FOOTBALL is to substitute chips for cash. This is the first, and probably essential, step in distancing ourselves from the madness. Pay no attention to anyone who says that the use of chips is purely for the convenience of the players. I would wager (no pun intended) that chips were first invented by casinos, and probably not first for use in poker games. The sole goal of casinos is to separate fools from their money as efficiently as possible. These businesses realize that no sane person is going to scatter large-denomination bills all over a roulette table. The guy’ll look at the money lying everywhere and think, “Oh crap, that’s a whole lot of money! I could buy myself a really high-end hooker and some quality blow with that cash!” (Or whatever, you get my point.)

But chips are different. Psychologically, chips don’t really belong to you; after all, they have someone else’s name printed on them, or perhaps they are eerily blank-faced. You don’t own them, you are just borrowing them for the duration of the game. They are not cash. They are not credit cards. They are Money Once Removed. And like those biologically distant cousins, you just can’t work up the same feelings of attachment and investment as you can for those creatures nearer, dearer, and more familiar to you. Chips have a way of slipping through your fingers. I have watched people toss their last $100 chip onto the table saying something like, “Oh well, it’s getting late, I might as well gamble,” and proceed to lose it in what is essentially a coin flip or worse. They would never do that with a hundred dollar bill, or five twenties. These are the same types who calculate the tip at a restaurant to the third decimal place.

So, is the use of chips an Evil Plot?


But it’s also incredibly helpful, because in order to deploy money appropriately in a poker game, you MUST be able to detach from it to the appropriate degree. In fact, one of the challenges with chips (if you play enough) is that it becomes possible to fetishize them almost to the same degree that the entire culture fetishizes cash. Look around the poker table and you will see classic signs of the disorder: towers of chips built with obsessive care; people who count and recount their stacks, who segregate their buy-in from their profits; the fearful nursing of the shortstack to the great detriment of optimal strategy. People get stack envy, for god’s sake. People finger their chips and stroke their stacks in ways that are laughably erotic.

When I look back at the frightened gal who quaked as she bought in for $200, I have to marvel at the emotional distance in my relationship to money that I’ve travelled in a few short years. There’s a drawer in my desk at home, now, where I keep my working poker bankroll. (My working bankroll is different from my overall bankroll by a large amount.) But by any reasonable standard, it’s a whole lot of cash. Until recently I’d only once had $500 in cash on my person, and that was when (many years ago) I had to buy an airplane ticket and for some reason I couldn’t use a credit card. I remember walking from the bank to the travel agency (yeah, like I said, DECADES AGO) in a state of near panic, imagining that everyone would know that I had a large amount of money in my pocket. These days, if you see me in a casino, it’s likely to the point of routine that I’ll have $500 in chips immediately to hand, and ten times that much cash in a safe somewhere nearby.

Even thinking about it boggles my mind. Except that, more and more, it just doesn’t. It reminds me a bit of the transition I went through when I became a professional photographer, and started to acquire high-end camera equipment—sophisticated bodies and really pricey lenses—and at first was deeply anxious when I used them. Eventually, they became merely familiar and beloved tools of my trade. I was not afraid of them anymore: I was no longer concerned about whether I would be worthy of them, live up to their quality, prestige, and excellence, or make best use of them. I knew I wasn’t going to break them or embarrass myself with them. I tossed them casually into my camera bag and got to work.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Day 106: In a Groove

I'd like to think I'm now playing the best poker of my life.

But it's entirely possible that I'm just delusional. God knows, my online results are in the toilet. Both cash and tournament play online have just been a litany of horrible, horrible outcomes. I've given back nearly a third of my online bankroll, and that's pretty appalling. That's more than a bit of a downswing, that's like falling off a freaking cliff.

However, my live game has been in overdrive. I had that fabulous run last Friday, and tonight I played great in a tournament (although I didn't cash), and then I went to the Crime Scene game and just rocked the house. I was in the zone and it was so much fun.

Again, the cards cooperated, for the most part. I didn't take any horrendous beats. I got away from hands that might have done me major damage. My image is fairly well established with the regulars, and this allows me to steal with impunity from time to time. I am playing with a greatly enhanced positional awareness, and I think this ~ in conjunction with a willingness to fold when my gut tells me I'm beat ~ is contributing substantially to my success.

There are few things I find more pleasurable than experiencing my own competence in action. Poker is tailor-made to frustrate that experience with great regularity. Because luck is such a large component of the game, it can be very hard to distinguish between periods of good and bad luck and periods of greater and lesser competence. Maybe this is all just positive variance. It doesn't feel that way, but we all know that, when it comes to poker, feelings can be deceptive.

If I had to identify the biggest difference in the way I'm playing since my return from the last AC trip, it is that I'm doing less overt thinking about my play. It seems that I've internalized many of the calculation and observation processes, and they are now taking place more in the background rather than the foreground. I'm still doing math and profiling my opponents, but those activities are not projected IN HEADLINE TYPE on my mental screen, where they can become a distraction. This is freeing me up to pay attention to my gut and my instincts, to relax more and agonize less. I am experiencing the game as a gestalt that flows, rather than merely a series of punctuated and independent decision-points. As a result, I'm not only playing better, I'm enjoying it a whole lot more.

My guess is, these changes (improvements?) are much more significant in live play than online. I have so much more information to work with, and find it so much easier to maintain my concentration and attention in live games. I don't get as bored, and I don't fall as often into rote decision-making patterns. I also tilt less.

Again, it's entirely possible that this is all just some kind of fluke, and I haven't really learned or gotten better at the game in any meaningful way. I suppose time will tell.

Live bankroll: 115.5%
Live ROI: 23%
[Stats include travel-related expenses.]