Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

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

Sunday, May 31, 2009

All My Bags Are Packed…

I'm ready to go. I'm leaving on a jet plane!

I'm so ridiculously hyped up it's a wonder that the walls and ceiling don't have Cardgrrl-shaped dents in them. Somehow I've got to set aside the novelty and excitement enough to take proper care of myself for the next month: eat well, sleep enough, exercise regularly. I am trying to be a sensible adult about this, really I am.

O boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy o boy!!!! WSOP here I come!!!

(Yeah, I'm calm and collected, for sure.)

The next post will probably be from my WSOP pad.

(You have no idea how awesomely cool it is for me to be able to type the words "my WSOP pad!")

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Friday, May 29, 2009


I have had a very annoying day today.

Mostly, annoying days do not produce much of use. However, in a fit of pique, I pronounced that "Poker is a stupibad game." (It may have had something to do with horrible players drawing out on me with crap in a HORSE tournament. Maybe.)

I then fell madly in love with my new coinage. I feel it is much more expressive than its near cousin "terribad." I look forward to muttering it under my breath for many games to come.

Say it with me, brothers & sisters: STUPIBAD!!

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Minor Win

I managed to hold on to my points lead to the end of the B League season, and thus won the cash prize and another little citation on the Plaque of Winners. It's not a whole lot of money, but it's nice for the ego quotient, considering how grim things have been in my live play of late.

I'll take it! (It'll probably almost cover whatever it costs to fix my car. Ugh.)

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Soon and Very Soon

I am once again experiencing the psychological displacement that occurs when I'm getting ready to swap one location for another. I leave for Las Vegas in five days. I'm well on track for various chores, errands, and the Last Minute Laundry Ritual. It's just all a bit more complicated because I'm going to be away for a whole month.

In the run-up to my WSOP experience, I'm playing much less live poker (where things have been brutally rough for me of late). I've been signing up for large-field, multi-table tournaments online and practicing the skills that I think will be needed in June. So far, the results have been very encouraging, as I have cashed in four out of five events. It would be really nice to actually WIN something, however.

Hanging on to a substantial chiplead seems to be my biggest challenge. I think I'm going to experiment with folding-everything-but-superpremium-hands for a couple of levels next time I find myself way out in front. The game I played last night, I went from a very healthy second place to out in less than twenty hands. Granted, some of them were fairly ugly coolers, but still, my own play was nothing pretty either.

I was impressed by the hyper-aggressive action in that six-max, deepstack tournament. It was relentless pressure from start to finish: eight solid hours of raises and re-raises. Even with the very gradual blind structure, players were scrapping over every chip. I was completely wrung out afterward. I figure that I saw nearly as many hands in eight hours of online play as I would in a 14-hour day of live action. Stamina really matters.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

WSOP Schedule

Inquiring minds want to know: what WSOP events am I planning to play during my month in Las Vegas?

It looks like I'll play two regular NLHE events (#11 on June 4th, and #36 on June 18), and probably also the Ladies event (#17) on Sunday, June 7. I have mixed feelings about the Ladies event. On the one hand, I rather object to the ghettoization. On the other hand, if it brings more women into the game, I'm for it. On the third hand (look Ma! three hands!), it's undeniably the case that winning the Ladies event is likely to lead to Good Things® such as publicity and sponsorship, both of which ~ I freely admit ~ I would be delighted to have.

I also intend to play the sole Razz event (#44, June 22) on offer. I am not a great Razz player, but I also don't totally suck. Maybe I can give F-Train a run for his money.

In my wildest moments of tournament irresponsibility, I'm also considering playing the cheapo ~ well, relatively ~ HORSE event (#31, June 15). I harbor few illusions about my skill as a HORSE player. I am mediocre. I just think it would be really, really fun. So if I manage any success in the other games, I will probably do this one.

Five bracelets! (Is that too much to ask?)

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

2000+ Good Decisions

What does it take to win a large multi-table tournament, one that has thousands of entrants and runs over the course of three days?

By my calculations, it takes about two thousand good decisions. I figure a three-day event lasts a total of about 34 hours. At a well-run live game, you can see approximately 30 hands an hour. Of those, you'll only play a certain precentage (all told, including short-handed, and heads-up), let's say 20 percent. Some of the decisions will be binary (e.g., continue to play the hand or fold), but a lot of them will have multiple sub-elements (e.g.: choose to raise, and decide how much). I settled on 2000 as a nice round number.

At first blush, two thousand decisions doesn't seem like a lot. But ask yourself: how many times have you gone through the same motion 2000 times without error? (Breathing, blinking, and other autonomic functions don't count.) Do you think you could add 2000 columns of numbers, for example, without once making a mistake? Making 2000 correct decisions in a row, under pressure, is a huge challenge.

Sure, you could make a mistake or two and recover. If you're lucky. But in a tournament, one mistake can also be completely disastrous. You don't have to make the optimal play every time, but you do have to avoid making bad decisions. You have to do the right thing over and over, hour after hour, for two and a half long days of playing.

The next time you describe someone who wins a large-field tournament as a luckbox, remember this. Sure, they probably did run like god. Nobody gets through a huge game like that without running hotter than the sun, having good hands hold up and sucking out when necessary. But nobody makes it through a field that big on luck alone, either. Those people sitting at the final table probably made more good decisions in a row to get there than any athlete in the history of the world has ever made good plays in a row. That takes mental toughness, concentration, and stamina, and it is much harder to do than it looks.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

You Win Some...

...but not many.

The highlight of my trip to AC was participating in a $300+40 charity donkament with 65 runners. It was chockfull of football stars, but I had no idea who any of them were, except for Mike Ditka (I never played with him). The tournament was half football/charity types and half pros. Seriously, it was ridiculous.

I decided to play my very tightest game and just hang on for the ride. And I ground my way to 8th place, which gave me about double my buy-in. What really chaps my butt is that they ultimately chopped it SIX WAYS. If only my QQ had held up over QK on the last hand... Oh well.

The only other success I had was at the 2/5 table. You'd think I'd have learned this lesson by now. For whatever reasons, my statistics clearly show that I have a positive win-rate at 2/5, and basically hardly at all at other stakes. So, what would you do? PLAY 2/5, right?!?

I hereby resolve to play 2/5 from now on in casinos. I think I play better and the overall variance is lower for me. God knows at 1/2 I've been running like crap. I think big pairs held up exactly ONCE for me on this trip. It is so demoralizing to lose 90% of your showdowns when you get your money in way, way ahead.

I returned home in time to play in the BBT Riverchaser's Monday night tournament on FullTilt, where I managed to squeeze out a third place finish. My plan is to play lots and lots of online multi-table tournaments in the two weeks remaining before Vegas, just to get my head into the bigger field, longer games.

I'd love to win a WSOP seat like some people I know.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Off to the Air-Conditioned Venue

Yes indeed, tomorrow I head out on another bus junket to Atlantic City. I have ~ as is customary ~ completed the Last-Minute-Laundry Ritual, and have a full array of clean clothes to choose from. Now I will be attempting to go to bed at a sane enough hour to actually get some sleep before the bus's departure at the ungodly hour of 9am.

9AM, I ask you! Don't these people understand that we are gamblers?!? Well, to be honest, most of them are significantly further into the geriatric demo than moi, and they probably go to bed and get up with the sun. Maybe when I am ancient I'll do the same. (I doubt it.)

I was supposed to be heading to Guadalajara, Mexico, this weekend for a family shindig. That trip got cancelled for obvious reasons of health paranoia. I guess I just have to go to AC and get "casino crud" instead. What a shame.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Nowhere near as bad as I thought...

I was in a pretty bad funk over my online poker results as revealed by tracking software. Nobody likes to suck. But then I realized that I had not included results from my other computer. So I transferred over the hand history files and imported those too. This provided me with a total of 150K hands to look at.

The result: I am, in fact, a breakeven player online. And if I were getting rakeback, I would definitely be profiting.

While this doesn't exactly offer cause for celebratory fireworks and champagne, it is helpful in two ways. Firstly, it confirms my original estimation that overall I'm not bleeding money online. And secondly, it shows very clearly that I was a significantly winning player until my results FELL OFF A CLIFF 15K hands ago in cash games and in tournaments. And when was this?

It was February.

Okay, that's interesting.

Let's see... what happened in February? Well, gee, I went to Vegas and got my ass kicked. My results in cash games, both online and live, have been in the dumper ever since. My tournament results have been okay live, but pretty bad online.

Some of this, I'm sure, is because most of my online play is very late at night/early in the morning, when I'm not at my best. Some of it is probably down to distraction (online play is particularly vulnerable to this, as the computer offers so many potential *oooh shiny!* attention-snags). And if I were a superstitious woman... well, let's just say I could come up with a couple more "explanations."

But I'm not.

So: have I become a much worse poker player in the last three months?

This seems unlikely. I may have been playing less well because I got so badly beaten up by variance in Vegas, but I don't think I've suddenly lost all my skill. And, if anything, I think the last three months have taught me a ton about overcoming tilt. While there's been a great deal of frustration, I think I've actually come to pretty good grips with the hands I've been dealt (so to speak).

I've also noticed, in the past, that when I'm absorbing new information or ideas about the game (say, from reading a book, or having a useful conversation about strategy), my results tend to suffer for awhile as I digest them and try them out in my own game. Eventually, I process them fully, and incorporate them into my game (or not), and the temporary disturbance passes, much like a case of indigestion from an especially big meal. Usually I emerge from those episodes a better and stronger player. It's possible that is what's going on here. I may be having growing pains, and the downswing may be both contributing to the pain and fostering the growth.

The net result of my analysis is this: I've been running really bad, it's affected my play, I'm learning new things that I've yet to fully master, and I don't totally suck.

Sounds about right to me. What do you think?

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

With hands like this...

Royal Flush

...coming along every couple of days, you'd think I could turn a profit, wouldn't you? (I think I won the minimum with this.)

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Why We Don't Ask Questions We Don't Want Answers To

I finally decided that I needed to get some software to track my online results and to experiment with a heads-up display on cash tables. Being a Mac user, my only option was Poker Copilot. It's nowhere near as fully-featured as PokerTracker, but it's a start.

And now I know why I stopped keeping careful tabs on my online results.


And not just a little. My cash results are abysmal, and my tournament results are little better. And this is over a 50K hand sample, so it's no statistical blip.

I think I'm showing a net profit in my non-hold'em tournaments (specifically Razz and HORSE). But I wouldn't swear to that. After all, I thought I was at least breaking even in hold'em online; if this software is to be believed, I should be so lucky. (Maybe if I were getting rakeback I'd be a breakeven player. Maybe.)

Well. Time to take a deep breath and start over with new levels of rigor, and at consistently lower stakes.

I've been told that the truth will set me free. I don't feel especially liberated at the moment, I must confess. But I promised myself that I would be ruthlessly honest in my self-assessment over the course of this experiment, and being frank about bad news is part of the deal.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009


Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
It's worth noting that, among many other very interesting and almost intractably deep things that Wittgenstein said and wrote, he also admonished:
Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.

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Saturday, May 9, 2009


I find myself looking forward with great enthusiasm to my sojourn in Las Vegas this June. I am genuinely psyched at the prospect of playing tournament poker at least three days a week, and at having the vaunted 55 cardrooms at my disposal the rest of the 24/7.

I have already booked my air travel, and am in the process of finalizing my lodging arrangements. If all goes well, I'll be close enough to the Rio to make it a short bus or taxi ride (I haven't yet decided whether I'm renting a car), but far enough away to be able to leave it totally behind when my day is over. I'm staying in a condo, so I'll have a real kitchen, a real bedroom, and a real living room. I'll be able to entertain company. I'll have a pool to swim in and a fitness room to work out in.

It will be absolutely essential for my well-being to make and stick to a well-structured schedule. I plan to take one day a week completely off from poker, to focus on on the three "Rs:" writing, recreation, and errands. I also intend to go to bed and wake at approximately the same time every day (that's likely to be about 3 am and 11 am, respectively).

My current thinking is that I'll play four WSOP events ~ the Razz event, one other limit event, and two no-limit events ~ and some yet-to-be-determined number of tournaments elsewhere (at the Venetian, for example). On days I don't play tournaments, I'll play cash games. If things go well, I'll think about trying to satellite into the Main Event, but honestly I really don't care if I don't get a lottery ticket to that game.

I know that my stay in Vegas will still constitute a small sample size upon which to base major life decisions. But it's also the best sample I'm going to get. I intend to make the very best of this opportunity that I can.

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Oh what a difference a day makes...

We are told, with good reason, not to be results oriented. The only thing that matters, we are instructed (and quite rightly), is that we make good decisions. We should then be content to let the chips fall as they may.

And it's true. It really is.


Every now and then, ya just gotta win. Otherwise the game is simply soul-crushing and any normal human being is going to give it the hell up. So when I finally had a winning session at the Crime Scene Game on Friday night, when I racked up my bricks of red and cashed out with a nice profit, it was balm to my battered poker ego. My big hands held up. I got away from my losers cheaply. I pulled off a couple of nifty bluffs. I played well, and I had average-to-good luck.

So today, I'm playing with my A League in Manassas. So far, I've busted out of two tournaments early, but made my buy-ins back playing cash. The key thing, though, is that I don't feel like a total, complete, hopeless loser today, and you know what?

That's nice. It's really nice.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fourth for Me

O8 Royal Flush

I've had 4 royal flushes so far in my relatively short poker career. Three of them have been online, two in no-limit hold'em and the one pictured here from this morning's game of Omaha HiLo. Obviously any big hand is easier to make in O8, but still, I thought it worth a screenshot.

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Canine Haiku

K9 boat

They call K9 weak,
They say "Don't play with the dog!"
I say: arf arf arf.

The flop: K99
That sound you hear is barking:
Who let the dogs out?!!

Though not broadway cards,
K9 fetches a fine straight.
What a good puppy!

When premium hands
Are scarce and your stack is short,
Fido is faithful.

K9 or deuce-four?
Head to head to the river:
I'd be Grumpy too.

[Inspired by this.]

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Poker Laughs (4)

"How do you run so good?" asks Antonio Esfandiari, after Laak wins a pot from Tom Dwan (having flopped the nut straight).

"I haven't lost a hand in, like, 14 years straight!" ~ Phil Laak on Poker After Dark, "Hellmuth Bash" Episode.


Monday, May 4, 2009

Go With Your Read

You've heard this over and over: "go with your read." As I've taken a hard look at my play, one of the things I've noticed is how often I rationalize a decision I would never make if I took my read seriously. I am now trying consciously to both formulate a read (usually a hand range, but sometimes either more or less specific) AND to both refine and respect it as the hand proceeds.

Here are two cases from last night's Crime Scene Game.

#1: I am in middle position with a relatively short stack. There is a limp in early position, I limp in with 10 J suited, it folds to small blind who calls, and the big blind checks his option. The flop is J 7 5 rainbow. The small blind and big blind check, I make a half-pot bet with top pair. The small blind calls, the big blind folds.

The small blind is one of the people who runs the CSG. He is a canny player, and he knows my betting patterns better than I'd like. The check-call tells me that something about that flop appeals to him, but I don't think he's floating my bet with air or with bottom pair. It's possible he has a straight draw, but I think the most likely scenario here is that he's got a 7, he wants to see whether something will develop for his hand, and he's also keeping an eye on me to make sure that I wasn't just making a position bet with air myself.

The turn is a 10. Now I have two pair. Small blind checks. I check behind, purely as a trapping play. I'm pretty sure I'm good here, and there are very few cards that I fear on the river. I am hoping that my opponent will see my check behind as weakness. With most other players in this game I would have bet the turn, but I feel I'll be able to extract most value this way.

Except that the river is a 7. I am now not a happy camper; this is the worst possible card for me. After some hemming and hawing, the small blind goes all in (he has me covered). Is there any hand he could possibly do this with that doesn't have me beat? Even more to the point: am I persuaded that my original read was right?

I sit there for awhile, but honestly most of that time is occupied with me making my peace with the fact that I'm beat. I am totally persuaded he has a 7. I am toast: I fold. [My opponent later told me that he thought I had a straight with 89, that he shoved because he had a 7s full of 10s on the river, thought that the overbet would look weak to me and that I would call. I am inclined to believe him.]

#2: I am in the small blind. Four limpers enter the pot ahead of me. I look at my hand and find KK (red). I make a 1.5xPot bet. I get one caller, from early position. The rest fold. The caller is an action player, who plays any two, but is especially fond of and almost always chases flush draws (he's pretty keen on straight draws too, even if they're gutshots). I've also seen him shove on a flush draw if he has the Ace or the King. The flop comes 9 5 2, two spades.

I do not want him to draw to the flush. I make a pot-sized bet, which is about a quarter of his stack. Without missing a beat he shoves it all into the middle. (I have him covered.) Now what?

Well, I'm getting 4:1 on a call, I think it's likely he's on a flush draw, maybe he's got a pair as well. But there's no way I'm laying down Kings in this spot to this player. I call. He shows a set of deuces. Amazingly, I catch one of my two outs on the turn and go set over set for the win when the river blanks.

I was wrong about his holdings, that time. But now I have been reminded that he'll limp-call a big raise with a tiny pair in the hole (In fact, this behavior is endemic to the CSG and I ran into a flopped set of 3s last night too, again when I had a big hand; on that occasion I laid down my AK top pair top kicker to an all-in reraise. Me, I'm folding those small pairs to a big raise pre-flop). But I don't regret going with my read, since I think a large percentage of the time it would have been right. I am, however, unabashedly grateful for the re-suck King.

So I still believe going with my read is a good practice, especially if I am re-evaluating and testing it on every street. There's little point in HAVING a read, after all, if you don't act upon it. Unless you are prepared to act on it, a "read" is just idle speculation, a sort of self-indulgent daydreaming. An accurate read that you base decisions upon? That, right there, is one big fundamental step towards having an edge.

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

I choose to persevere

I am pleased to report that Rex55 is blogging again after a period of quiet. Pay her a visit. Her candor is both refreshing and helpful to all those who want to understand what the poker life is really like.

She also appended a quotation to her post. I tracked down the original recording and offer this transcription:
Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it's not. It takes commitment, and you experience plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won't. It's whether you let it harden you or shame you into inaction, or whether instead you learn from it and choose to persevere. ~ Barack Obama, July 12, 2006, (at approx. 6:25 in video)

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Friday, May 1, 2009

One Good Decision At A Time

In a refreshing turn of events, I won my B League tournament last night, outlasting a field of 25 entrants. Although I played well, I cannot take any credit for the very nice run of cards I also enjoyed. It is a truism that no one wins a tournament without getting lucky several times, and having been at the ugly end of the luck stick many, many times of late, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the truth of the saying when I benefit from it for a change. I have solidified my position atop the leaderboard; with two games to go in the season, it will be very difficult for anyone to catch me.

I am reminded that, above all, in tournaments you cannot afford to make a mistake. Every mistake you make requires an extra-large portion of subsequent good luck to recover from it. Your fundamental job is to minimize the role that probability plays in your success. Don't let variance contribute more than its absolutely unavoidable share to the outcome! That means playing smart: hand selection, position, tournament stage strategy, player analysis, stack management, pot odds and control, and on and on. Any lapse in attention or discipline can be very costly.

Tonight is my last crack at the WSOP subscription series. I am currently in fifth position. The first two positions are pretty much locked up. In order to collect one of the payouts, I have to move up at least one step on the ladder. Several other players are also in the hunt. The challenge for me is to keep my eye on the prize, make one good decision after another, and just skip the mistakes. The rest is in the hands of the poker gods.

[Update: WSOP FAIL. By a couple of points. Gah.]

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