Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

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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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Be Not Afraid (part 1)

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
—Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965
Unmanaged fear is probably the single most dangerous psychological obstacle to winning at poker. And a life governed by fear is deeply destructive to an individual and—if widespread in a culture—to civil society as a whole. If you let it, fear will destroy your game and maybe even you as well. Learning how to recognize, experience, and yet move beyond your fear is essential if you are to be a successful player.

The impulse of fear is useful when it helps us accurately identify dangers and prepares us to respond in constructive ways. But decisions made under the sway of fear are far less likely to be good ones. Our biological fight-or-flight reflexes are often wildly inappropriate for the contexts in which they are triggered in modern life, and this is especially evident at the poker table. When adrenalin pumps through your bloodstream, when your heart races and your hands shake and your bowels liquefy, when you have the vital urge to flip the table in rage or curl up in a fetal position underneath it, you are unlikely to be considering, say, the choice between leading out with a value-bet or check-raising as coolly and deliberately as the situation warrants.

Fear comes in many guises and manifests itself in many ways, some considerably more subtle and insidious than the basic glandular reaction to an obvious external threat. What are you really afraid of?

Are you afraid of losing (and there are so many kinds of loss to consider)? Are you afraid of looking stupid? Does the demeanor or the playing style of someone at the table scare you? Are you fearful that you will lose control? Are you frightened that your time at the table will cause others to judge you immoral or actively dislike you? Are you terrified that, when all is said and done, you might actually be a winner? (Then what?!?)

I'll be addressing each of these questions.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009


The car repair folks have just informed me that my two recent flat tires are the result of deliberate sabotage. This is pretty upsetting news.

I don't think of myself as a person likely to inspire the kind of rage that leads to repeated slashed tires. I have to wonder, though, if this is random hoodlumism or a new and distressing form of occupational hazard.

I would never have imagined that any of the people I play with could do such a thing. In fact, I still don't. But I can tell you this: when I play in the CSG tonight I will NOT be parking where I usually do.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Day 160: The Good with The Bad

I've been in a pretty foul frame of mind the last few days, and it hasn't improved the quality of my play one little bit. This afternoon found me throwing a magazine half-way across my living room, in sheer frustration. The angst was brought about by a combination of factors, the proximate cause being the abrupt accidental termination of an hour-and-a-half-long support call trying to address my currently VERY SHODDY high speed DSL connection. That was the final straw. It wasn't helped by the observation that, at that point, it was too late for me to get to the gym before my afternoon social engagement.

So I toddled off to a Chinese New Year party being thrown by my friend, the first one which she was hosting with her husband as the new parents of a one-year-old adopted from Taiwan. It was a chaotic scene, more appreciated for the quality and quantity of friends and good feelings than the material provisions. I had a lovely time, and I left a few hours later in a vastly improved mood.

I proceeded directly to the Crime Scene Game and went on something of a rush. There were a couple of unusually soft customers in the mix, I played well, and I quintupled my buy-in in relatively short order. I then gave a couple of buy-ins back, but by the time I cashed out, I was still in good shape. I should have left earlier, but I guess I got a little greedy.

Learning how not to start playing well only when coming from behind and how to consolidate and maintain a win remain two of my tougher challenges. It's two ends of the same problem. I also noticed that I started playing with scared money toward the end of the evening, when I began worrying about protecting my profits. (I definitely misplayed one hand because of that: I was much too passive and failed to make a continuation bet and/or a re-raise when I knew I ought to. Either play would have given me the pot.)

As is usually the case, these are things I know I'm doing wrong as I do them. I just have to find a way to STOP DOING THOSE THINGS. It's not rocket science, really.

Still, month six is off to a decent start.

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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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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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