Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

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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Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Atlantic City Half-Light

I'm going to have to do some hardcore self-assessment when I get home. I may also need to seriously consider finding and employing a really good coach. I don't know whether what I'm experiencing is primarily variance having its way with me, my weaknesses as a player finally showing through, or the product of a bad case of "monsters under the bed" syndrome.

I need to step back and take a cold, hard look at my play and my results. And I'd like to recruit another pair of more objective eyes to assist me in that review. Any suggestions as to who might fit the bill for that will be gratefully received. I'd also be interested in sweating an accomplished and successful player so that maybe I could get some fresh insights into the game.

Continuing as I am now is not going to result in a viable, sustainable professional career. I must improve; I must keep learning; I must do better.

[Update: I came home and filled out my spreadsheet. It turns out that I actually made some money on this trip. And if I had skipped the tournaments, I would have come home with quite a respectable profit. It helps that I did very well in my last session in AC.]

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Day 97: Two Days of Grinding AC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ooo, my first Q & A post! Sweet!

In response to my post "Day 22: Running With The Red Queen," gentle reader Dave (known on Poker Academy Online as Civitas) asks:

How many online hands are you playing?
Also do you belong to any of the coaching sites?

At the moment, sadly, I have no way of answering the first question. All the poker-tracking and analysis software worth mentioning is, currently at least, PC-only. Words cannot express how annoying this is to me, and I hope the situation changes in the near future. One of the reasons I bought my new Macbook Air, however, was so that I could install a BootCamp partition with *gack* Windows and run the needed programs.

I have yet to do this, though, so the best way I can answer Dave's first question right now is to say that I play enough hands at microstakes to earn SilverStar status on Pokerstars. When I have some numbers for you, I'll cough 'em up.

As for subscribing to any of the online coaching sites: right now, no, I don't. But I've definitely thought about it. The thing is, I spend so much time already reading, thinking, talking about and playing poker that the thought of adding yet another chunk of poker-time to my schedule is a bit daunting. Especially time in front of a computer screen, which I find much more tiring than reading or playing live. The main argument for checking out the coaching sites, I think, is that my better opponents are likely to have done so too... and it would be wise to have some idea what they might have learned from them.

Should I start to show some kind of meaningful profit, I might reinvest some of it in a coaching site. Although I'd really prefer to have a live, personal coach. That option is a heck of a lot more expensive, unfortunately.

Ask me more questions! This is fun!

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