Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


It finally happened. After almost a year of playing poker at pretty much every opportunity, some internal gear shifted and the engine of my poker mind moved to a different place.

I played this past night at the Crime Scene Game. The room was hot and humid ~ in the new location there isn't yet any air-conditioning, just a couple of fans that sluggishly push around the moist DC summer air and the sweaty body heat generated by a roomful of players.

As is regrettably common, things started off badly for me. Within a few hours I had had to top up twice, and was down to less than a third of my chips. I felt a bit unfocussed and as if I weren't taking the game sufficiently seriously. The table was a little short-handed, and one of the players announced he was leaving. I started to despair about the sustainability of the game, and did my best to keep the table going by encouraging another to stay.

And then the heavens parted, angels sang, and a school of fish swam into the room. Suddenly we had a full table and lots of money to be won. I settled into my seat and told myself that I was not going to end the night without a significant profit. I just wasn't. I was going to sit in my chair and make good decisions and walk out at the end of the evening with twice as much money as I had put on the table. Whatever it took, that's what I was going to do.

And for the five hours after that I just ground it out. I watched each player until I knew what he or she was up to. I patiently picked my spots, and got my money in good. I didn't panic when I lost a pot; I didn't get overconfident when I won one. I didn't indulge in Fancy Play Syndrome. I just let other people play worse than I did, made it easy for them to make mistakes, and let go of my losing hands the moment I ascertained that bluffing would not be profitable. There was nothing flashy about my play, nothing to particularly boast about in terms of hero calls or fabulous reads. I just kept my head in the game and did the right thing almost every time.

I was not gambling. I was not trying to entertain myself. I was not looking to impress anyone. I was doing my job: I was playing poker.

Of all the money I've made playing cards, this $473 dollars of profit is somehow the most precious to me. Because as I made my way home in the rising morning light, I realized that I am a professional poker player. I have good-enough skills and the wherewithal to improve them. And ~ what's even more important ~ I have the right temperament: the patience, the evenness of keel, and the persistence to do what it takes to survive and profit.

I can make this work. Now I just have to decide if I want to.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Pile Up

The last several days have been difficult as various life challenges have all hit simultaneously. I'm playing a bit online, but have been staying away from the live scene while my head is so cluttered. I had anticipated things getting clearer and easier as the end of my year's experiment approached, but ~ to my dismay ~ they are actually getting muddier and more complicated.

Apparently, my naive optimism dies hard. Please bear with me while I sort things out.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Investing in the stock market is easy...

...as everyone knows: all you have to do is buy low and sell high. Any fool can do it.

And playing poker is easy too. All you have to do is lose small when you lose, and win big when you win. How hard can that be?

Yet somehow there just aren't that many wildly successful investors or poker-players.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Playing Online Will Get WHOLE Lot Harder

If the article mentioned in this post at Mind Hacks doesn't send a chill up your spine, then perhaps you're not grasping the full implications for computer-mediated poker.

How predictable is your play?

Are you sure?

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Friday, July 17, 2009

A Good Day Online

I came in 11th in a 1500 person MTT on Full Tilt. And then I won a smallish MTT O8 Hi/Lo game. Neither of these accomplishments ranks as a major achievement, but it does make me realize that I have been leaving something important out of my ponderings: namely, the possibility of earning some of my keep online.

Playing online is not my favorite thing. I wouldn't want to do it all the time. But I have been having steadily increasing amounts of success in MTTs, and cashing at a pretty good pace lately. I've also been doing surprisingly well playing ~ of all things ~ small stakes LHE. There's every reason to believe that a certain amount of online play could contribute to my baseline income in a decent way.

This puts some interesting ideas in my head. I may actually be able to have my cake and eat it too.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

By The Numbers

Month 11 will be over in two days, and I'm only planning to play live once more before then, so the books on M11 are basically closed. My Year of Risky Business will be over soon, and I've already begun the difficult process of trying to evaluate my progress and prospects as poker player.

It would be nice if the results were clear-cut. It would be very, very convenient if I were either a roaring success or an abject failure. Alas, I am neither, and so my results require interpretation. So here, instead, are the observations (based on spreadsheet data) that I'm working from. See what you make of them.

Month 11 was my best month ever, and by a meaningful margin. This was largely due to my outrageous winnings at the Rio cash games, but I also did well in tournaments (WSOP cash and Harrah's AC nightly 2nd place) and playing cash in AC. It is very difficult to know how much weight to put on these results. The juiciness of the Rio game probably cannot be replicated outside the context of the WSOP. On the other hand, the increased experience and confidence I'm bringing to the table is undoubtedly a contributing factor in my success this month, as is simply not running like crap. Bottom line: I could live comfortably on a monthly income that was 2/3 of this month's take, and I could get by on 1/2 of it.

For the last eleven months, my tournament ROI in smaller-field (fields <200) tournaments is over 90%. With the exception of a few minor cashes, I have not done well in the bigger buy-in, big field events. On the other hand, I haven't done more than about fifteen of them (including the 4 WSOP events), so the sample size is not large. Still, the big events are bankroll-busters unless you are properly 'rolled for them, and I am not. I took my shot and didn't get there.

For me, the tournament sweet-spot is probably a buy-in somewhere around $100-200, and fields of no more than about 150. Many of the Las Vegas daily tournaments with decent structures fall into this category.

I am a losing player at 1/2(or 3) cash. This had been my gut impression, but I ran the numbers carefully and now there's no doubt about it. It's embarrassing, but true. There are some venues and circumstances where I'm ahead, but overall, NOT. Really not.

I am a winning player at 2/5 cash. I made nearly twice as much money playing 2/5 than I did playing in small-field tournaments, but I had to put a lot more money at risk to do it (almost three times as much).

I only started keeping precise data on my hours at the cash tables in Month 5, so I have to estimate winrates a bit. I would say I am losing at about -4BB an hour at 1/2(3), which ~ let's face it ~ is PATHETIC. I have definitely seen enough hands at these stakes to render these results reasonably reliable.

My results for higher stakes are significantly less meaningful, as I have logged only half as many hours at 2/5 as at 1/2(3). Currently, I estimate I'm averaging somewhere around 15BB/hr. This is probably unsustainably hot. The problem is I have no idea whether a statistically more reliable sample size would end up showing me to be a loser at 2/5 as well, which seems like a serious possibility. I just don't know.

It has become clear to me that, as I've mentioned before, I'm just NOT going to have enough concrete data to make a sound statistically-based decision any time in the near future. And yet I must begin making some decisions based on incomplete information anyway. I'm going to have to do it based on some combination of math and my gut intuition, and in keeping with my personal style and comfort zone.

Does that sound to you like any other kind of decision I've had to make a whole lot of for, say... THE LAST ELEVEN MONTHS?


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Think You Know How To Play Poker?

Go read the Red Pro Discussions on the Poker Room Forums and then see how you feel about it.

I just got done reading this thread about heads up SB v. BB play in a tourney setting. It made my head hurt, although I think I got the gist of the main arguments.

This is the competition I'm supposedly going up against? Might as well hang it right on up now. I have neither the patience nor the skillz to keep all these considerations at the forefront of my consciousness while playing in a tournament. At least, I'm mightily skeptical that I do.

The key to my success is inevitably going to be game selection.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Do The Eyes Have It?


Among the many interesting things I learned during my Las Vegas sojourn, there was one item about myself that genuinely surprised me: I don't much like being watched by people I know while I'm playing poker.

This is completely counterintuitive to me at first blush. Why wouldn't you want your friends and loved ones sweating your action? Wouldn't it be nice to get some (as Rex55 puts it) "rail love?" What could be more flattering than having people you care about follow your every check, fold, or bet (especially if they understand poker)? And how convenient to not have to recount the story of big hands… after all, the people you'd want to tell would witness them for themselves!

Well, it turns out that my assumptions about myself in this matter were incorrect; I don't enjoy this particular kind of attention. It's taken me a while to figure out why, but I think I've got it mostly worked out now.

The first and main reason is this: I am not a good multitasker. If I want to succeed at something complex, I must focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. When I am in the poker-zone, my attention narrows to include the people sitting at the poker table and the clock (if it's a tournament) and just about nothing else. This is how I play my best: the table becomes my whole world and I pay minute attention to the actions of its inhabitants. I'd like to think that an axe-wielding maniac could come screaming up to the table and I would only notice because of the reactions of the other players.

But the problem is, I simply cannot ignore my friends. This is a basic element of my psychological make-up. I am incapable of completely ignoring or blocking out the presence of people who matter to me. The loved one on the rail is a distraction just by virtue of breathing. If I know and care about you, then if you are in the same room as I am, I will pay attention to you. Some portion of my brain will always be actively modeling what is going on in your head and alert to monitor any interaction or potential interaction (past, present, or future!) between us. It is a little bit as if I were a communications center and one of my antennae were perpetually pointed in your direction, whether or not you are actively or intentionally sending a signal to me. And knowing that the spectator's attention is, in fact, intensely focused on me just makes it worse. A thousand virtual conversations can blossom and die in my head every few seconds.

This, as you may imagine, is not helpful to my game.

There is a secondary reason, which is less significant and one I'm more likely to be able to overcome over time: performance anxiety. When someone whose good opinion of me I value is watching me play, I become self-conscious and more worried than usual that I'll make a boneheaded decision and lose a big pot or otherwise bust out spectacularly. If this concern simply caused me to play better, then obviously it wouldn't be a problem. But when it leads me to second-guess myself, play too conservatively (can't make a big mistake THAT way!) or too wildly (hero call! flamboyant bluff!) or spend more time wondering how I'll look to someone away from the table than I do about the people actually sitting at the table, that's no good.

Mind you, it's worth mentioning that there's a key exception to the above. A week or so into my Las Vegas stay, I asked Rakewell if he would sweat me at a few cash games. Things had not been going well for me at all, and I was starting to wonder if my game really and truly sucked. I thought it would be very helpful to have someone whose game I respected watch as I played and give me some critical feedback. The Grump very kindly agreed to do this, and observed and took notes over the course of two sessions of a few hours each. I was very grateful for his patience and attention, and I didn't find his presence at all distracting under those circumstances. (I may add that his comments were both useful ~ when he pointed out some less-than-optimal choices I made ~ and reassuring, in that he was able to say that he hadn't detected any outright suckage on my part.)

Finally, I should say that while I would probably be both willing and able to perform a similar exercise for another player (watching and providing a post-game critique), I myself make a lousy railbird. I find watching poker without being able to see hole-cards only mildly less excruciating than watching a caterpillar in a cocoon for weeks. (Yes, it's lovely when the butterfly finally emerges, but please!) I just don't have that kind of patience. To my poker-playing friends: please do not feel slighted if I do not rail you for hours. I'm just not cut out for it. I will, however, happily fetch you nourishment, massage your shoulders, and provide you with conversation, pep-talks, or a listening ear on breaks if you like.

Mind you, if someone I know goes deep in a major tournament, if there's a seat in the bleachers and you'd LIKE me to be there, I certainly will if I can.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Report from AC [Revised]

[Update: This is a revised version of my AC Report, combining two takes from my iPhone footage.]

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Almost Gone

The Last Minute Laundry Ritual is complete. My little shoulder bag is packed. I even went out and bought the new iPhone so I can video blog if I want (although I have to say I am mightily disappointed by what appears to be WORSE image quality than my original phone). I'm traveling light this time… no computer.

I am ready for Atlantic City. I set out in a positive frame of mind, filled with curiosity about how I'll perceive the competition after my time in Las Vegas. I plan to mostly play 2/5, and maybe one tournament on Sunday.

Expect updates mostly via Twitter.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009


I'm not talking about the cleaning and maintenance of my physical apartment, although that is sorely in need of attention too. One chore at a time, people!

No, today is all about getting my computer systems organized, backed-up, and fully functional again. A few days before I left for Las Vegas the wireless keyboard for my desktop unceremoniously gave up the ghost. It simply wouldn't turn on. Mind you, it had been living on borrowed time since the day not too long ago that I (for the first time in decades of computing) spilled a mug of coffee into it. To my surprise, after letting it dry out and a little damp cloth cleaning, it seemed to work pretty well after that trauma. Until one day it didn't.

I finally went and bought a wired keyboard (cheaper, and no need for batteries). The aesthetics are almost as good because I have a keyboard tray on my desk, and the wire goes out and up the back. Plus, I'll never again have the aggravation of the computer not recognizing the keyboard and thus becoming utterly non-functional.

Of course just going into the Apple Store is an exercise in "ooo, shiny!" that makes me realize how just about everything I own is hopelessly outdated. I am striving to remind myself that what I have at the moment serves my purposes adequately and it would be foolish to go hog-wild on new technology just now.

Although the new iPhone looks awfully sweet (I have a first gen edition). And if I'm going to upgrade, I should do it NOW before it becomes stupid not to wait for NEXT YEAR'S upgrade. Right? Right?

Ah, technolust. Almost as fraught with peril as pokerlust.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Up the Coast

I've decided to forego my A League's End of Quarter freeroll tournament on Saturday. I have a very short stack of chips to work with (having qualified by winning a game, and then being out of action for the entire month of June), and the prize pool is relatively small this quarter.

Instead, I'll be heading out on another junket to AC for a couple of nights. Time to revisit the 2/5 game at Harrah's, and maybe even slip over to the Borgata for a few hours to see how it feels playing there. If things go well, the profit potential is considerably higher than I'd likely manage at the EOQ. Since the trip costs me nothing but 9 hours of bus-butt and another couple of nights away from home, it seems like an easy choice. And I can always hope that my orphan stack will manage to survive the blinds and squeak into the money.

Are the good results I've experienced in the last 10 days just variance swinging back (temporarily) in my direction, or have I really learned something as well?

There's only one way to find out.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Is the curse broken?

I made my first foray to the Crime Scene Game since my return. It has moved to a new location, which I thought would be more inconvenient for me, but that actually turns out to be pretty much of a wash in terms of travel time. Except for one or two new faces, it was the regular cast of characters.

Would my time in Las Vegas affect how things went? Or would it be a return to the soul-crushing defeats of the last several months?

I do believe that the experience I accrued in Vegas influenced my decision-making ~ for the better. And, for the most part, I avoided the ass-end of variance on this outing. I played for about eight hours; as is typical for the CSG, it was something of a roller-coaster ride. Although I didn't manage to cash out at my peak profit, I did walk away enough ahead to feel satisfied with the night's effort.

All I can say is: this bodes well.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Breathtaking Arrogance

[This post refers to this video on Pokertube. I had to edit it out because the video player was messing with my computer's CPU. My apologies.]

I do not dispute Annette Obrestad's talent. She has proven her mettle online and in live play (winning the WSOP Main Event in Europe). But I am stunned by the level of stereotyping and, in my opinion, downright ignorance and naivété she displays in this video interview.

I remind myself that she is 20, and has experienced a level of success that would turn anyone's head. This is a young person who is accustomed to winning, and who has an unblemished belief in her own abilities. Nonetheless, it is a little shocking to see what pure, naked, and unalloyed confidence looks like.

Part of me wonders how she will process the inevitable experience of a really long downswing, when that time comes.

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Limit Tournament Third Place

I can't even remember why I decided to play a $4 LIMIT donkament starting at 9 at night. Especially one with 896 entrants. Seriously, this was just a demented choice from start to finish.

But I got past 893 of my opponents, despite making a couple of REALLY boneheaded plays. (Everyone else was just that much worse, which is saying something!) To be fair, I definitely had my luckbox moments too.

It's been a while since I had a strong finish in a big online MTT. So this feels kinda nice. Thanks to all the kind folks who railed me for hours. (You people are nuts.)

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Must. Play. Poker.

Despite having arrived home at an unseemly hour of the morning, and then getting only about five hours of low-quality mid-day sleep, I found myself impelled to play in my A League's first tournament of the new quarter.

I was fortunate enough to win the game. We all know you can't win a tournament without getting lucky a couple of times; I was helped along on this occasion by my first ever straight flush with the group. But I have to say that playing poker in Las Vegas for a solid month also contributed to my success. I was making accurate reads and timely moves that now come to me much more naturally and fluidly than ever before.

Practice definitely matters. Having seen a wide variety of situations and having encountered a broad spectrum of styles makes a difference.

Something important has changed as a result of my time in Las Vegas: I can no longer be intimidated. After the variety of winning and losing experiences I've had, no one at the table and nothing anyone does can terrorize me. I will think through my options carefully, I will evaluate a broad spectrum of factors. But the choice I make will not be influenced by fear.

You can't scare me anymore, folks. Give it up. I am officially unafraid.

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Fields of Gold

Based on a completely inadequate sample size, I am tempted to conclude that I played the wrong game for most of my stay in Las Vegas.

I spent an absolute fortune (by my modest bankroll standards) on tournament entries ~ both at the WSOP and elsewhere. My tournament ROI was abysmal, as I only cashed twice and minimally at that. I also played various 1/2 cash games around town and mostly lost. And then ~ battered, bruised, and in a fundamentally shell-shocked state ~ I stumbled into the Poker Room at the Rio and sat down at a 2/5 game.

As a parched wanderer crossing the desert doubts the vision of loveliness rising ahead of him in the scorching heat, thinking that surely the verdant oasis before him must be yet another cruel mirage or a hallucination bought on by near-mortal thirst, so did I experience a surge of disbelief when the bounty of the 2/5 game at the Rio unfolded before me.

A few preliminary words of caveat, mitigation, and general context: First, it must be understood that I had been (you should excuse my language) running like shit for what seemed like a LIFETIME (really about 3.5 months). Let us stipulate that running bad easily leads to playing badly, makes you doubt everything you think you know about the game, and in general is, if prolonged, the most demoralizing and destructive thing a poker-player can experience at the table. When you have been running bad, a reversal of fortune ~ being dealt playable hands, big hands consistently holding up, draws coming in at a rate approaching statistical expectation ~ feels like hitting the jackpot over and over and over.

Second, I am at best a mediocre cash player. AT BEST. Until relatively recently ~ and we're talking a matter of months here ~ I was downright feeble. This is the case with most people who learn poker by playing in tournaments. The habits and strategies that serve them well in shorter-stack tournaments are disastrous at a cash table, particularly when playing deep. The Rio poker room was filled with people who were there to play in tournaments, and not just any tournaments, but the freakin' World Series of Poker. These are folks who think highly of their poker skills; they are there to take on the best. Why were they sitting at a cash table, you ask? Because they were either waiting to play in a tournament, or had busted out and had something to prove. And the 2/5 game at the Rio is uncapped, which results in people sitting with enormous piles of chips in front of them. I have never before played in such a deepstacked cash game.

As I've mentioned previously, 2/5 has shown me a consistent profit. There's something about the way 2/5 games tend to play that suits my thinking and my baseline style. It is easier for me to understand what is happening at a 2/5 table. The higher stakes keep me that much more alert and attentive to what's going on. And the prospect of earning more money for the time committed tends to focus my mind and enhance my patience. I have little doubt that I actually play better at 2/5… and that my play is more improved than my opponents' skill level is increased compared to a 1/2 game.

It's a beautiful thing when you can look around the table and know exactly where the weak spots are (and who the dangerous players are, so you can avoid them). It's an amazing sensation when, just a couple of orbits into a game, you are confident that you have a pretty good bead on how people are playing ~ and how most of them are playing, each in his own way, is badly. Exploitably. Predictably. Sloppily. Foolishly. And all of it for large sums of money.

You know those cartoon characters who, perceiving the prospect of an easy score, get dollar $ign$ for eyes? Well, that was me. And to add icing on the cake, I ran hot too. Bonus! I played six sessions at the Rio in my last week in Las Vegas. I averaged 60BB an hour. Yeah, that's sustainable (NOT!). It was the single most profitable run at cash tables I've ever had, and I'll be stunned if I have another like it anytime soon.

But the net effect was astonishing: I absolutely owned those tables. The poker room staff actually started making jokes about it. The third time I cashed out with a huge profit, the cashier guy said to me, "Another fine day at the office, I see." And at my last session, the floor who seated me at the table said, "Here you go... I hope you enjoy dominating, er, I mean playing at this table." Even when you know how easily things could have gone differently, and indeed very badly (and I do, I certainly do), it is hard not to feel a surge of confidence when just about every decision you make is rewarded handsomely rather than brutally punished.

There's just no two ways about it: winning is fun, and winning big is BIG FUN. And it has to be said that winning big after a long, harsh losing streak is especially sweet.

But does any of this mean that suddenly I am a poker genius? Definitely not. It's incredibly hard to unravel these kinds of results to try to determine how much of my success was due to good play and what portion was just dumb luck. And, I must add, I am still struggling to show a meaningful profit for the year.

Coming up soon: some more general thoughts about my time in Vegas, and what it may or may not mean for the choices that face me at the end of the Year of Risky Business.

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