Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Unclear On The Concept

The 2/5 game was wild on Saturday night, the wildest I’d ever seen at Harrah’s. It was playing deep, too; there was probably more than 20K on the table. It was Action Central: in the four hours I played on the main game (after being shifted from the must-move table, well up), there were maybe two contested pots worth less than $200. The average pot was closer to $400. Chips were sloshing from one end of the table to another.

After awhile I realized I didn’t have the stomach for this table anymore. I was just not willing to get it all in to the middle and rebuy, rebuy, rebuy the way it would be required to profit at this particular game. Despite previous oaths to the contrary, I decided to take my small loss for 2/5 and step down to 1/2.

As it turns out, this was a wise move. (In fact, previous stats to the contrary, I broke even at 2/5 but made a profit at 1/2 on this trip.) In the wee hours of the morning, my new table was stocked with the tired, stupid, and clueless, and it quickly became apparent that I was going to clean up here. I had the run of the joint until a young man sat down to my left and started to horn in on my action.

He had a nice line of patter. He was friendly and chatty, and it soon became apparent that his “Aw, shucks” routine was pure bullshit. He knew exactly what he was doing. It also turned out that he had recently moved to DC and was looking for games in my area. I immediately determined to tell him nothing. It was also clear that he quickly identified me as the only other person in our game who posed a threat, and he did his best to disarm me with charm. (As if.)

There was one other person at the table who obviously featured himself as a superior player. He had a few extra chips in front of him, and had evidently been prospering until my arrival. (Really, a blind wombat ought to have been successful at this table.) Shortly after BS-Boy sat down, he tangled with Superior Player.

I regret that I cannot reconstruct the action in the hand with any precision. Honestly, I wasn’t paying that much attention until the flop, when the heads-up dialog began. There was a big bet from SP.

BS-Boy: I raise. (He makes a bet that will require SP to be all-in if he calls. The board has two hearts, a queen, no straight possibilities.)

SP: Your two pair is no good, sir.

BS-Boy: I don’t have two pair.

SP: You make that bet with a draw? You have a flush draw?

BS-Boy: I have a flush draw, but not the one you think.

SP: Really, you are on a flush draw?

BS-Boy: I will show you if you fold.

SP: I call.

The board is run out with blanks. BS-Boy turns over the AQ of clubs, for top pair, top kicker. SP mucks angrily.

SP, indignantly, in high dudgeon, and with apparent total sincerity: You lied to me, sir! You said you were on a flush draw. You did not have a flush draw. You looked me straight in the face and lied! You have no integrity. The money means nothing to me, I have plenty of money, but I find your behavior deplorable.

BS-Boy: (Says nothing, is clearly boggled.)

Me: You are at a poker table. People often do not tell the truth.

SP: But he gave me his word! He has no integrity!

Me: This is poker. You know… bluffing…

SP: Is that how your parents raised you? I feel sorry for you that you were brought up without any morals. I do not wish to play with people like you two.

SP storms off.

Me, BS-Boy, Dealer, and indeed whole table: ??????

A few moments later it dawns on me… “two pair no good.” Oh, really? And yet somehow TPTK managed to take down the pot. (My best guess is that SP was on the nut heart flush draw himself.) The ridiculous thing is I think he was genuinely incensed at having been fibbed to, without even remembering his own bit of misdirection. It’s pretty clear that in fact BS-Boy was the more honest of the two liars (he had the nut club flush draw pre-flop)!

Oh, and the next time someone impugns my parents’ child-rearing skills or ethics, I will inform him or her that they are this very moment looking down upon the defamer from heaven and recommending to God immediate dispatch to Hades upon demise. No one disses my parents, dammit!

Labels: ,

Friday, February 27, 2009

Remind me to re-read this...

Desires come in all shapes, sizes and forms. Denying any of them is a sign of weakness. Controlling them is an indication of personal strength. Exploring them demonstrates courage. Being uncomfortable with your desires reveals your humanity and is never something to apologize for--ever. —The Poker Shrink
That's the final paragraph from this post about men and women, most of which I find inaccurate (or perhaps I should say: most of which differs radically from my experience or that of my friends and acquaintances). Perhaps the author is exaggerating for effect?

That one paragraph, though, is a doozy, and in my view entirely redeems the preceding four others. It's well worth thinking about what it might mean in the context of poker.

It's also worth thinking about what it means in the context of everything else.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

On Being Bad

Most mainstream religions frown on gambling.

There’s definitely something unholy about putting one’s (or, ideally, someone else’s) hard-earned money at risk — subject to the vagaries of chance — rather than to work. Should you be squandering the precious resources entrusted to you for mere entertainment? Furthermore, gambling just doesn’t seem like a godly activity; Einstein, for example, was offended by certain aspects of quantum theory, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Gamblers come in two flavors, the superstitious and the scientific. The first subscribe to the magical property of luck and the second ascribe to the propositions of probability. Those who wish to mix luck and religion find themselves in the dubious position of asking their Deity to help them be lucky (we may pause to recall the unseemly spectacle of competing prayer-wars at the final table of the 2007 WSOP Main Event). This is particularly awkward for those who believe that God has a master plan, and all is fore-ordained. What is it you’re praying for in that case? “Let me turn out to be the one predestined to win!”

Those who are die-hard probability fans may start to wonder where God is in the grand scheme of things. If it’s all chance, given enough time and the laws of physics, pretty much everything that can happen, will happen. Why bring God into it all? There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are plenty at the poker table. (Believe me, run bad long enough and you will start to question the existence of a loving God.)

Poker, with it’s skill component, brings some further concerns into play. Now, in addition to the gambling, there’s the matter of using your presumably God-given talents to take other people’s money. Specifically, to take other people’s money by means of deception, aggression, and by taking advantage of their weaknesses. You are to feed on your opponents as the wolf feeds upon sheep. The apparent lack of sharp teeth and overt bloodshed should not mislead anyone: poker is a predatory pastime. This is not the stuff of saintly behavior.

The wish to exercise the cardinal virtues of compassion and generosity, the commendable impulse to heal the sick and nurture the helpless, the desire to educate and enlighten the ignorant, and the natural human tendency to bond and form groups for mutual aid — these are all deprecated to the point of being out-and-out liabilities when playing poker. Poker is a caricature of Darwinian competition, “nature red in tooth and claw,” survival of the fittest. It’s a bit like capitalism, except without the productivity part. It’s hard to see how this is a good thing.

Various people have tried, in my view completely without success of any kind, to make a case for poker having some socially redeeming value. The closest that I, personally, have ever been able to get is the notion that poker facilitates the redistribution of wealth from stupid people to smarter people. This seems like a pretty feeble proposition (on a factual basis) to begin with, and I’m not sure that it would represent much of a social good even if it were proven to be true. I see no evidence that people who are good at poker are, in fact, any more likely to do worthwhile things with money than their less-skilled counterparts.

Does boxing have any socially redeeming value? Two people get into a ring. There are certain rules that govern their behavior, which are intended to ensure that the fight is fair. The combatants bring differing levels of preparation, skill, stamina, experience, intelligence, aggression, discipline, and desire to the competition. And then they hit each other. A lot. Let’s face it: somebody is gonna get hurt.

It has always baffled me that some people find watching boxing to be entertaining, and I am stymied even more by the fact that there are people who actually like to box. I don’t like to see people fighting, and I really don’t like to see people hurt. (I especially abhor the idea of hitting or being hit, myself.) Then I wrote the previous paragraph, and now — although it still doesn’t appeal to me — I think I may have an idea why they enjoy it.

Poker is like boxing, without the physical part. The key to both activities is that the participants come to the table voluntarily. 1

When you climb into a boxing ring, you accept that you are going to get punched. Repeatedly. Hard. When you belly up to a poker table, you accept that everybody there is going to do his or her best to TAKE ALL YOUR MONEY. There are rules and referees, it’s not a free-for-all scrum. It is not the case that “anything goes.” If you don’t abide by the rules, you won’t be allowed to stay, and you may even be sanctioned. But within the magic circle of rope or felt, you are permitted to — nay, encouraged and rewarded for it! — exercise all your faculties to prevail. Hit as hard as you can, float and dodge, outwit and baffle. It may not be nice, but it cannot be described as unethical.

In a word: compete. Bring out your bad self and go medieval on their asses. As the teenage son of some dear friends asked drily the other night, over dinner, “You’re not going to trot out the catharsis argument, are you?”

(Smart kid. Let him write the damn book.)

Where was I?

I was raised to be a good girl. I was brought up to be nice. I was taught not to be selfish and to tell the truth. I wanted people to think well of me.

Enter the poker table and Enter the Dragon.

At the poker table I am not nice. I am utterly selfish. I am devious. I am aggressive. I am ruthless. I lie my ass off. I don’t care if people think well of me or not. In fact, if they think I’m stupid, it’s good. If they fear me, it’s good. If they like me, it’s good. I can work with whatever they think. At the poker table, I am not a good girl.

And that’s really, really good. It’s the thrill of defying a taboo. It’s satisfying, on the level of an inchoate itch that you didn’t even know required scratching until you dug in your fingernails for the first time. I can reinvent myself however I please. It’s fun.

But part of the reason it’s fun is because, on a very basic level, it’s safe. I’m playing poker. There are rules. It’s a game, not my whole life. And although, while playing poker, I may not be a good girl, I am always an honorable girl. My integrity remains intact, and it is important to me that others know and can rely on that.

I despite cheaters. They blur the boundary between the game and the rest of life in a destructive way; the “bad” that should be confined to the context of the game leaks out into the world, where it absolutely does not belong. That decompartmentalization is a breach of the poker-player’s social contract, and it undermines the very nature of the undertaking. It renders the game unconstrained, unsafe, and therefore not fun. In the context of a poker game, cheating is sociopathic behavior.

1 I set aside, here, the case of those addicted to gambling. This a topic that deserves separate consideration.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Day 7: A Secret Society

Are you on a bus or in a subway car? Look around. You'd be surprised how many of your fellow passengers are members.

In your office, if it's of any size, there are certainly at least a couple of them. If you don't belong to the secret society, you wouldn't even know that they sometimes hold meetings there, after the last workaholic has gone home.

How do they recognize one another, the members of this underground group? Sometimes it's an inside joke, certain words spoken in a special order, or phrases with a double meaning that outsiders wouldn't catch. But among the true initiates, more often it's the mention of a certain location, or the name of a guy (usually it's a guy), and the promise of an introduction.

You had better come into these groups carefully, selectively, and honorably. Because in many environments, the secret society is perceived as ~ well ~ not quite thoroughly legitimate. Its meetings may or may not be fully sanctioned by law. It's a secret society, because the revelation of membership might cause marital strife, consternation amongst one's fellow churchgoers, or concern in one's employer. It might. Or maybe not.

Above all, for the true believers, the hardcore practitioners, it's a secret society because they themselves are embarrassed to admit how important membership has become to them. There is a whiff both of shame and of covert pride. There are very few who bring an unmixed mind and a serene heart to their participation in this community.

And this holds especially true among the members of that particular lodge within the secret society of gamblers who call themselves poker-players.

In any fringe activity, even one as widespread as that of playing poker for money, personal reputation and group ethos end up being incredibly important. The greater the stakes and the more established the group, the more significant a role that both individual and collective responsibility for self-policing play. If you want to see old-fashioned personal integrity in action and as the governing principle in community membership, go hang out with a bunch of people who've played poker together for a long time.

You can bet that any new person coming into the group is going to very quickly be made aware of both the stated and unspoken rules that govern conduct in the community. The consequences for infractions vary among poker subcultures, but they start with overt cautioning, and escalate quickly to ostracization or ejection, and in some cases (extra-legal, of course, and not in my circles) quite dramatically and unpleasantly beyond.

There may be no honor among thieves, but there definitely is honor among poker-players. If they want to keep playing in a given community, that is.

For those who prefer to play in person rather than online and who don't have convenient access to a licensed casino or cardroom, the only options are home games (what counts as legal varies by jurisdiction, if permitted at all) or illegal formal or informal games (including highly organized and profit-making cardrooms). If you're looking for a game, networking is everything.

You need to network to find the game. You need to network in order to learn what kind of game it is, whether the other participants (both organizers and players) are trustworthy, and how to present yourself to the existing culture. If you do not already have a trusted network of fellow players, you are walking into these situations blind and unprepared, presuming you can find them at all.

And rest assured, one way or another your reputation will proceed you, so you'd better make sure you have a good one.

I care tremendously about my poker reputation; I consider it a vital asset and a key element to my long term success in the game. This is why I am scrupulous about playing by the rules, why I work hard to establish that my word is my bond, and why I am never, ever in the slightest bit tempted to cheat. No short-term gain is worth jeopardizing what a spotless reputation will earn me in the long run. (I feel obligated to add that my own personal moral value system would keep me from cheating as well, even if I were sure that I could go entirely undetected forever. But that's a separate point from the one I'm trying to make here.)

I have also had to learn how to nurture and sustain a network. It's not a skill that comes naturally to me, as I'm not much of a joiner of societies, secret or otherwise. I am now constantly looking to find and connect with players whose commitment to maintaining their own reputations is as strong as mine, and whose ability to assess character is demonstrably reliable. Those people are the strong nodes on any network. It's a quality that others naturally recognize, and it is the chief building block of mutual trust and respect.

I don't play in every game to which I'm invited (and, needless to say, I completely avoid anything that is illegal; life is too short and I have too much at stake personally to mess around with that). I rely on my network of resources to help me evaluate the quality and trustworthiness of every new context I explore, and I also put very large stock in my own instinctive reactions to any given scene. I have no difficulty cashing out and leaving the moment I sense something the least bit shady going on. I have no interest in being associated with anything that I even suspect may be dubious in any way. There is always another game to be had on another day, if it comes to that.

Our daily lives are filled with these kinds of communities, subcultures, and affiliations (Kurt Vonnegut called the meaningless ones "granfalloons"). Many of them are out in the open and widely acknowledged and accepted. Many go unspoken, unseen, or unacknowledged, but are nonetheless powerful influences shaping people's lives. Some of them are self-aware and deliberately organized, others are ad hoc or just a case of birds of a feather that find themselves unwittingly flocking together. It is an important part of our identity structure as human beings to know which of these public or secret societies we belong to or wish to belong to (or not!), and an important part of our self-image and self-esteem to be aware of our standing within those entities. The explosion of social-networking software is demonstrating quite clearly just how important this stuff is in our lives.

When my mother died, I discovered the existence of a secret society, a bizarre kind of club that I had never had any reason to know about before. It was the unheralded, largely unrecognized cohort of people who had lost a parent. Suddenly I had something vitally in common with total strangers; we shared something fundamental, something life-altering. While I never formalized my understanding of this new community (through joining a grief support group, for example), becoming aware of my membership opened my eyes to the vast web of unlabeled commonalities that are woven through human society. It was my first step toward learning to value them as well, because I quickly realized that acknowledging and sharing with others my membership in the Society of Half-Orphans was actually helpful to me.

So look around you. Learn to see the ties that bind people together. Make conscious decisions about the ones you want to cultivate and participate in. And prune away those links and connections that conflict with your own sense of honor, that don't reinforce your idea of who you really are or wish to be, and that fail to respect the fullness of your personhood or that of others.

Because your networks are not separate from who you are.

Labels: , ,