Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


You'd think that prospect of making or losing money would be sufficient incentive to keep a person focused on the task at hand, wouldn't you? I mean taking other people's money is the object of the game, ultimately, right?

Well, yes.

But the human mind is easily clouded, and our emotions are unruly monkeys just waiting to leap out of the jungle trees and run riot. Furthermore, the fiendishly clever devices of "chips" and "pots" can distract us from remembering that the sole and royal road to success in poker is making good decisions at every juncture.

I will freely admit to being as weak-minded, or more, than the next person. I have found it useful to give myself concrete incentives to make good decisions. These motivators are not perfect, because they are correlated with results, not directly with the quantity or quality of good decisions per se. But, I have to admit, they do work, at least to some degree. They give me something external (not unlike, say, a WSOP bracelet) to strive for. They are a way for me to keep score that is separate from and more concrete than my bankroll.

So, I give you:

The Tournament Charm Bracelet
Each bead represents either a casino tournament win or any tourney cash for more than $1000. Silly as it is, the desire to add another bead to the bracelet is sometimes more motivating than the notion of winning.

The Cash Glass Bead Necklace
This is a new score-keeping program that I've just begun since The Tweak. I have had a tendency in cash games to play longer than I should, and to go on win-tilt. As an exercise in discipline, I have been striving to make sure that ~ having doubled my buy-in (or better) ~ I do not give back my profits. To that end, I am setting aside 1% of my profit from every session where I leave the table with at least double my buy-in toward a glass bead fund. Since the beads cost about $30, each one will represent $3000 or so in profit. If, however, I double up during a session and then end up cashing out for less, I must remove a bead from the necklace until I next double up (or better) and take the profit again. So far, I haven't had to remove the necklace's starter bead, and I am well on my way to my first new bead.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Play On!

Even as I begin the unpleasant process of looking for a source of gainful employment (oooo, no fun!), I'm still making the rounds of my local poker haunts and playing a lot.

Despite one desperately bad session at the Crime Scene Game in which I ran up against a super-hot LAG who COULD NOT LOSE (that, and I made two truly bone-headed mistakes), the Tweak continues to generate good results. Saturday night I played all night at the Ikea Game. The table was exceptionally juicy, and since I have better-than-average mental stamina my skills held up as others' deteriorated. This was an ideal profit-making scenario for me, and so I stayed and played until it was time to go to Sunday brunch. It's been a long time since my last all-nighter, but it was a good judgment call to stay at this game and it paid off nicely.

I wanted to see what a year of poker-playing has done for my skills, so I decided to take The Donkey Test again. I took it a couple of years ago and scored 90. This time I scored 115. Apparently I've learned something in the intervening period, which is encouraging. I'm too cheap to pay for the full analysis, so all I can report is that the test thinks I'm a winner at low stakes. Yep, that sounds about right.

If I continued the learning progression, well, then I'd be a mid-stakes winner in two more years. And THEN I could play poker for a living, right?! Yeeee-haw!


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Fold

One thing that poker teaches you, or ought to anyway, is how to fold.
Your hand has no promise, and there are no prospects for a successful steal: fold.

You’re out of position, with a modest holding: fold.

You’ve missed the flop, you have no draws, and your canny opponent has led out: fold.

You’ve raised in early position with pocket 10s, and there’s been another raise and then a shove from a tight player behind you: fold.

Your only choice at this point in the tournament is to raise or fold, and raising will put your whole stack at risk with a weak hand and no fold equity: fold.

You’ve finally realized you’re at a table with significantly more skilled players than you: fold and pick up your chips.

There’s a common saying among poker players: “No one comes to a casino to fold.” And it’s true. Most people go to a poker game to “play” ~ by which they mean to see flops and turns and rivers. To gamble. To bluff and go all in. Not to mostly fold (which, of course, is what professionals do).

No one likes to see the money they’ve invested go to someone else because they surrendered the pot. It’s no fun realizing that the river bluff isn’t going to work and that the better part of valor is to give up a failed betting line. And when faced with a massive raise, it’s a miserable feeling to be backed into a corner (is it a bluff or a monster?) and having to fold. Let’s face it: folding because you were outplayed or outdrawn… both unpleasant.

No one likes to give up. No one likes to quit. And nobody likes to fail.

My friends, I find myself facing the decision: raise or fold. I’ve played for thirteen months. I’ve looked at the numbers, I’ve done the math, and the results are pretty hard to dispute.

I am a marginally profitable player. I cannot possibly make a living playing poker unless my skills improve significantly. I’m a much better tournament player than I am a cash player, and if I could tolerate the huge variance associated with tourney play, it’s possible I could eke out a living that way. But I’m not prepared to make that experiment, it’s simply too risky for my taste.

I’m not particularly happy about this conclusion. But I’m a grown-up, and I truly believe in fiscal responsibility. I do not have, at present, the wherewithal to be a professional poker player. So it’s time to acknowledge that, make the "pro" fold, and move on. Time to generate a viable Plan B. (Got a job for me?)

I do not, however, plan to stop playing poker. It’s a hobby that makes rather than costs money. It has taught me much about myself and others. It has introduced to me to wonderful people. Poker has made incredibly positive contributions to my life, and I expect it to continue doing so. I hope to keep improving my game, and I also intend to keep writing.

I hope that those of you who have joined me for this journey will continue to come along.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Tweak

I have had numerous requests from readers to reveal the nature and particulars of The Tweak. As this is the new age of interactive and social media, I feel obliged to respond. So here ya go:

Not. Gonna. Happen.

I'm just not good enough to tell everyone exactly how I'm playing and then figure out who's adjusting and then readjust myself etc. etc. Since it's likely that my readers constitute a better-than-average group of poker players, letting them have specifics that make me more exploitable than I already am seems absolutely idiotic.

Don't be paranoid, you say?

But already, and more than once, my public face has foiled my game strategy. In the most recent case, I was playing for the first time at Treasure Island. Not only was The Tweak in full deployment, but I was also working my Live Poker/Vegas N00b persona. I happened to find myself sitting next to David Stucke ~ a highly-skilled poker-player (he also downplayed his accomplishments, which apparently include a WSOP bracelet) ~ with whom I struck up an extended conversation. I learned he is a physicist, and a very pleasant, nice person in addition to being blindingly bright. He kindly pointed out to me who the regulars were in the room, and was forthcoming on life in Vegas in general.

A new player joined the table and said hello to David. I asked David what the new player's name was, so that I could greet him and continue my program of table socializing. "His name is Brick," said David. "Hi Brick!" I called out.

"Well, hi!" said Brick from the one seat. There was a pause. Then he said to David, "You know who that is, don't you?"

David indicated no.

"You're sitting next to someone famous. That's Cardgrrl! I follow her on Twitter." He came round the table and showed David my latest tweets from TI on his cell phone. (I subsequently put the pieces together and realized that Brick=@apolloavp. Hi, Brick! Needless to say, all my concerns apply to you, too!)

Aaaaagh, busted! After a brief round of protestations and demurrals, I tapped out a note on my phone to show to David, asking him to not out me to the whole table. I left shortly after. On my way out, I apologized to David for my display of faux ignorance. I sincerely hope that my misdirection hasn't permanently appalled him, because he seems like exactly the sort of person I'd like to get to know better and be friendly with in Las Vegas.

He is also, however, exactly the sort of person with whom I would never, ever want to be openly explicit about my strategy unless I were asking ~ and probably paying ~ him to coach me. Alas, since no approach I'm likely to take constitutes rocket science (or material physics for that matter), it's quite likely he could figure me out down to the ground eventually anyway. But why give anyone a head start?

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In Memoriam

Ben Kramer

This is my friend Ben Kramer. I met him online through Poker Academy software, and then later in person in Las Vegas when he organized a PA meet-up. I took this photograph when he was in the Washington area visiting his parents.

Ben was one of the kindest people I've ever met. He was warm and funny, and he truly enjoyed making others feel welcome and appreciated. He died of heart failure on August 16, 2009. The world is a poorer place for his absence.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tweak Delivers

Tonight's visit to the Ikea Game seems to confirm the general usefulness of the game tweak. I modified it a bit given the slightly different profile of a few of the players, and I took note of where further modifications would be even more successful. Nonetheless, this was my first profitable visit to this venue in a while, and I have no hesitation in saying I know exactly why.

Could it really be this simple? My inclination is to be wildly skeptical. But we'll see…


On Being At Home

There are so many clichés about "home" that it's kind of sickening. But it's worth noting that clichés are clichés for a reason; things get repeated over and over precisely because people find them to be true.

So it should be no surprise that returning home after yet another lengthy sojourn in Vegas resulted in a sort of deep spiritual sigh, a grand releasing of tension that I was barely aware of being under in the first place. Coming back to my place, stale air and roving dustbunnies 'n' all, was almost indescribably pleasant. Looking around at my stuff (of which there is no doubt too much), the things that have followed me from place to place or the ones I've acquired in my long residence in this particular abode, things that continue to bring me pleasure daily and that express my sense of who I am or remind me of people and places I love, the familiar light and (non)view out my windows, the smell in the hallway, even the hidden clutter in the closet ~ all these familiar delights and annoyances gave me the sensation of being the one last piece snapped into place in a large, complicated, beautiful, and satisfying puzzle. Yes, I thought, this one goes exactly here. Aaaaaah.

Now, of course, I have to find out if my car will still start after sitting unused all this time. (On the upside, at least I know it won't have acquired $500 worth of unpaid tickets.)

And I have to figure out what the puzzle picture actually shows.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Meaningful Results or Random Walk?

Since making the small game modification I referred to a few posts back, I've now taken a profit at eight of the last nine sessions of 1/2 I've played. And the one losing session was the infamous double runner runner boat episode.

Have I uncovered the keys to the kingdom? I doubt it. (And obviously the answer to that question matters.) Still, it's a pretty interesting turnaround story. But in the meantime, there are some very good reasons to rejoice in the new game experience.

The first, and perhaps compelling, is that my current approach leaves me much more relaxed. I am enjoying playing more than ever. It also allows me some breathing room to "work the table." Last night at Bally's and IP I was able to ham it up something fierce, disarm my opponents, and then sneak up and whack them with the money stick... all while everyone was having a good time. Harmless little ol' me took the profits and everyone was still smiling. One nice man from Alaska even generously "coached" me at IP to help me improve my pre-flop decisions. Wasn't that sweet of him?

I'm now persuaded that it is much easier to make money between 10pm and 5 am than any other seven hour block of time. I don't know whether it's sustainable as a lifestyle, but it's hard to argue with the numbers, as my hourly winrate more than doubled during the late-night period. I have always been a night owl, and I have considerably better mental stamina than average. At that hour, I'm still playing my B+ game, while everyone else is lucky to muster a D game.

I have also have truly learned the lesson of the table change. There is no excuse in Vegas for sitting at a table full of iPod-wearing, sunglass-sporting, grim-faced poker dweebs. I will move at the first opportunity to the table where people are having fun, telling stupid jokes, laughing and flirting with each other, and generally having a grand night out. I am not, by natural inclination, an extravert ~ but if my livelihood is at stake, you bet I'm gonna chat up the people around me. No need to worry about me, sir! I'm just a fun-loving web designer from Washington, DC!

And that's just one reason for another practice I'm starting to take seriously: befriending staff at the ponds where the fish gather. I have now started introducing myself to some floor people and dealers, and soliciting suggestions from them about which tables seem promising. I am genuinely glad to make their acquaintance, and I always treat them with respect and cheerfulness, no matter their level of competence. As a result, there are already a few places here where I am recognized and treated well as a regular. (Which, to be honest, both cracks me up and delights me.) If I lived here, I'd definitely be buying gift cards for some of these folks' birthdays or Christmas or whatever.

I'll be very interested to see if my game tweak plays well at home too. The crowd that shows up at underground games tends to be tougher and more committed to the game and much better informed than the average low-limit casual player. But every time I come back from Vegas I feel like I've learned a whole lot, and it will be interesting to see how it changes my experience in my local games.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Poker Gods Hate Me

I took two of the most horrendous beats of my life half an hour ago, back to back. In both cases my opponents went runner runner: in one case running deuces for a boat to beat my flopped 2nd nut flush, and in the other running nines to put trip nines on the board, counterfeiting my flopped-set-turned-boat by giving the other guy a bigger boat with his top pair crappy kicker.

This put an end to a long session in which I played some of the best, most solid, disciplined poker of my life. I had folded my way through literally hours of off-suited, unconnected, worthless hands. I had played my A game throughout. I had kept my patience and my cool, and shrugged off the first beat. The second, I have to say, got to me. The fact that I walked away with the remnants of my once-healthy stack (I had the second guy covered as well) feels like some kind of grotesque pyrrhic victory ~ at least I wasn't felted.

For what it's worth, the whole table was flabbergasted too. When other hardcore players look at you with shock and pity, you know you've really gotten reamed.

Every bad player blames bad luck.
Maybe that's me.
But tonight, I think it's fair to say that I was unlucky twice in a row, in fairly spectacular fashion.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Precipitous Drop in Hell's Ambient Temperature

Or maybe it's just variance. Whatevs.

I made a small tweak in my 1/2 cash game. Just a little one. And the results have been startling. Instead of winning small and losing big, I'm losing small and winning big. Two substantial gains in two sessions. I know, I know, not a statistically meaningful sample.

Perhaps it's all coincidence. Dunno.

But I'm going to keep up this new approach for awhile and see how it goes.

In the meantime, I'm mightily looking forward to the 2K Guarantee at Harrah's 1pm Megastack Tournament tomorrow. One-fitty gets you 20K in starting chips, a sweet slow structure, and half-hour levels. A bunch of AVPers are playing; y'all come too!

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Phil Galfond Has Some Interesting Stuff to Say

You might want to check out this post. A sample:
If you make a big bluff and get picked off, your mind processes what happened as: I Bluffed --> Pain. It's kind've like how if you touch fire, you learn: I Touched Fire --> Pain. You're hesitant to touch fire, and sometimes you find yourself hesitant to bluff (or make some other thin play), especially since we remember the bad more readily than the good.

It's interesting how I'm never hesitant to make whatever play I think is best when I have the stone cold nuts. Whether it's to fastplay, slowplay, do something weird with timing or betsizing, whatever, I'm totally comfortable making whatever play I think is logically best. I never have had to associate check raising the river with the nut flush with losing money. In reality though, the play you make with the nuts can easily be as costly as a play you make with six high, in terms of EV.
It's pretty interesting to eavesdrop on what one of the best poker minds of his generation thinks about when he's up with insomnia.


Not Looking Good

Lots 'o' losing. Other than two small tourney wins (actually, chops one win and one chop), lots 'n' lots o' losing. I am the loserator. Loserific. La Loserella.

And tonight, in a fit of pique, the display on my iPhone went belly up. It had been doing the same thing as the previous model (turning on dimly occasionally). Then, it just gave up altogether. So a trip to the Apple Store is in order tomorrow, first thing. Hopefully the replacement will be as swift as the last time. Not impressed by the product quality control, however, I must say. (My first iPhone was such a joy, built like a tank and totally reliable. This latest model, not so much.)

Tonight, after the endless losing, I actually had a profitable cash session. Half of it was due to two hands: making a straight flush when the other guy had the same straight; and flopping top set of Jacks when the other guy had pocket Queens. The second half of the profit came from not getting brutalized, for once, and not making any dopey errors.

I have one week left. There's gonna have to be a massive amount of winning between now and next Friday if I plan to show a profit for this trip. I'm hoping Labor Day weekend vacationers will play lots of poker worse than I do.

[Update: iPhone seems to have debricked itself after getting charged up a bit. Will wait 'til I get home to look into fixes.]

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