Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

Friday, September 4, 2009

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.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Good day; bad day.

I had a very good day on the personal front yesterday.

You remember what it's like when you have a giant, painful, unsightly pimple right near your lip? It hurts, it looks bad, it gets more and more bothersome day by day. You know you could have avoided it if you had skipped the fried chicken or exfoliated more assiduously or just plain not had normal teenage hormones or SOMETHING. You try to ignore it, you cover it up with make-up, your nice friends tell you "It's not that bad, really!" but you know better. You can't bear to look at yourself in the mirror, you start turning down social invitations, and the pain near your lip makes talking or kissing miserable. This stupid little zit is messing up your life. It starts to feel like an enormous zit, a zit the size of the Matterhorn. You are irrationally afraid it will somehow infect your brain and kill you.

And then one day, finally, you've had enough. You are sick of thinking about that thing and of trying to not think about it. You apply hot compresses to the pimple. You perform the operation. The zit gives up the little solid pillar of hardened matter at its core, the pus flows, and maybe a bit of blood. The distended flesh and irritated nerves of the surrounding area on your face feel immediate relief. And the healing begins almost instantly. In a little while, all trace of it will be gone and not only will no one else take note of it, but you'll barely remember it was ever there yourself.

Yesterday, I popped a big metaphorical zit in my life (the healing has already begun). The relief was extensive. I was in a very upbeat mood. What better time to go play poker, right?

But I also had a bad day yesterday, and it was my own damn fault.

I was on happy tilt. I was also on only about four and a half hours of sleep. As I drove to the Ikea game, I asked myself: "Is this wise? You're kinda tired." But I was also floating on the confidence engendered by eight consecutive winning sessions. "It's okay, self, I won't stay long."

Meh. It wasn't that I played terribly. I didn't, I played okay. But I got stuck early, and then lost my buy-in and then another top-up, and then I got felted. I think I made one dubious decision (that early loss), but other than that my reads were good ~ the cards just didn't fall my way.

Nonetheless: I SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN PLAYING. I was not capable of bringing my A game. And even if my B game was "good enough" for the circumstances, I should be practicing the discipline of only playing when I can do my best.

I made a series of unprofessional choices: I didn't make the correct decision in deciding to play in the first place. Nor did I make the correct decision to leave after I realized that I was going to want to dig myself out, but I was really too tired to make a marathon night of it. I could have saved a buy-in by acknowledging that and picking up and going. Had I been well-rested, I could easily have rebought yet again and stayed and ground it all back and more. But I wasn't, and I knew it, so I should have left earlier and taken the more modest loss.

Being a professional poker player is not just about the decisions you make at the table. It's also about the choices you make on your way to the table and in leaving the table and away from the table. My tweet to the contrary, being a pro is not a hat you put on while you're on the baize, it's an identity that has to inform your entire life.

Am I playing at being a poker player? Or am I really a pro?

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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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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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Friday, June 5, 2009

You Know You're In Las Vegas When… (#3)

During a poker tournament break, you walk past a line 30 guys deep to the men's room, into a blissfully uninhabited ladies' room.

And as you wash up before leaving, the woman standing at the next sink over is J.J. Liu. You both apply lip gloss before returning to the game.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Barry Greenstein Makes Eye Contact

I went by the Rio to buy my ticket for tomorrow's event and get the lay of the land.

I was irresistibly drawn to the Day 2 tables for the 2-7 game. It was absolutely loaded with big-name pros: Deeb, Ivey, Hellmuth, Matusow, Lindgren, Juanda, Seidel, Rousso, Tony G, and the consummate professional: Barry Greenstein.

I was like a kid with her nose pressed against the bakery window. Now I understand why some people go gaga around movie stars. I was just thrilled to be in the same room with these folks.

I love this picture because you can see a copy of Ace on the River underneath his chair. I already own a copy (through the generosity of a certain Las Vegas local), but I wouldn't mind getting one from Barry's own hands some day!*

Barry Greenstein

*Some of you may not know that Barry Greenstein gives a signed copy of his book to anyone who knocks him out of a tournament.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Book A Win

Since successful poker is so clearly a product of one's mental attitude, "running bad" ~ those long, soul-killing stretches of bad luck that frequently turn into bad play to compound matters ~ can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Despite one's intellectual knowledge that the cards have no memory, randomness prevails, and each session is a new day, it can be well-nigh impossible to avoid the anticipation of impending doom and destruction. When it's been going really, really badly for a long time, sometimes you just need to win.

You know you're not supposed to "quit while you're ahead," especially if ~ rationally speaking ~ the circumstances seem ripe for continued success. You're supposed to stay and keep racking up the mobneys.

Well, now you have permission from none other than the Noted Poker Authority, Ed Miller, to take the money and run when you need to:

"Go ahead and book a win. I know a lot of people think booking wins and setting stop losses is hogwash. But playing top poker (particularly no-limit) requires confidence in yourself and your decision-making. And if you lose seven days straight, your confidence is likely going to be in the can no matter who you are. So if you start a session and you’re up a few buyins after bit, wrap it up. Book the win. And pat yourself on the back. You’ll be more confident during your next session."

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Day 119: Wiped

Ooo, I'm so tired. Really, really tired.

It used to be rumored that casinos pumped pure oxygen through their air conditioning systems to keep people awake and gambling. This has been debunked because a) it would be a huge fire hazard and 2) it would cost way too much, and c) it doesn't work. Casinos do a fine job of keeping people gambling using other highly effective behavior-modification techniques.

Personally, I think they lace the air with meth. That's my theory anyway. All I can say is: it would explain a lot.

Like how I seem to be the energizer bunny for days on end, and then two hours after I leave the casino I hit THE WALL and am a basket case for days.


As you may have gathered, I had a profitable trip to AC.

Friday: berry berry good, as previously discussed.

Saturday: Ugh. The Ladies Circuit Event was frustrating. We started with 5000 chips, 30 minute blind levels, antes began at level 5. After the dinner break I had an average chipstack and an M of 5. At that point there were still three tables left and we were already in shovefest mode.

I played my very best poker all tournament long, despite having little to work with, card-wise. I finally got it all in with the best hand I'd seen all day ~ QQ, and lost on the river to AK. That crippled me badly, and I finally went out when the card that made my K9 two pair gave my opponent the runner runner straight. Feh. I was 22 of 176, four from the money. Ten and a half hours of work for zippo.

I then sat down at a 1/2 table and proceeded to not win a bunch more. Just couldn't get any traction. Honestly, I probably shouldn't have been playing at that point, as I was still suffering with this headcold and I was tired from the long tournament day. I didn't do anything egregiously bad, but I wasn't at my best either.

Sunday: Got up and, dig this, went and worked out in the hotel fitness center. Words cannot express what an excellent idea this was. Worked up a sweat, got the blood flowing to my brain, and staved off deep vein thrombosis. I am committed to doing this on every casino trip from now on. Maybe even more than once. I am quite persuaded that the excellent day's results were at least somewhat related to the exercise. I played 2/5 for about twelve hours, with breaks for nutritious meals. I could probably safely have omitted the final four hours, as I went pretty card dead and probably only made an additional $100 in that timeframe. My folding became a source of much complaint at the table. I was sitting behind a pretty substantial stack and they all obviously wanted a whack at it. Which I denied them.

When I am not beyond exhausted, I'll try to post on one notable hand (where I got lucky) and one poker-theory debate that came up at the table.

Two overview points, though. The first is that my live game continues to improve. I can feel it ~ and it's nice to think it's showing up in my results. I am so much more comfortable at the table now, it's marvelous to me. I want to say: I feel like a native in poker land, not a visitor anymore. And second, as a native, I'm enjoying putting into practice the more social persona I discussed a while back. I've had some really enjoyable times chatting with other hardcore poker players at the table, laughing it up or exchanging views. I have "recruited" allies in this way, and it may have saved or even made me money. Regardless of the direct impact on profit, it's made being at the table more pleasurable, and reduced the kind of boredom or frustration tilt that's likely to be expensive.

I finally played again with poker pro F., the man who taught me "never show" three years ago. (I'll share that story with you sometime soon.) He jokingly pretended not to recognize me at first, but of course he ~ like most serious poker-players ~ has a very good memory for people he's played with before, and the circumstances. Today, when I sat down to play 1/2 for a few hours before leaving AC, I gave up a pot to him when I paid him off for the flush I KNEW HE HAD after I made my nut straight on the river. (Leak alert!!!!) Honestly, though, I almost felt like I owed it to him for the advice he gave me way back then, which stuck with me and has served me very well ever since.

Poker tables (like most places, come to think of it) are liberally populated with assholes. There are also some very interesting and really nice folks. I'm enjoying meeting the latter, and tolerating the former is a small price to pay for the privilege.

I LOVE MY JOB. If I could consistently make it pay the way it did this weekend, I could make a career of it.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

A Tale of Two Professionals

When I was in Atlantic City last time, I met two professional poker players. The differences and similarities between them—and me—were striking and, I think, instructive.

The first I met playing at the 2/5 table. I took immediate notice of her, as I usually do, first and foremost because she was another woman. We are still rare enough, especially at tables above the lowest stakes, that there is almost always a mutual acknowledgement of some sort, a lifting of eyebrows, a meeting of glances. She was dressed in Manhattan black, wore a stylish cap, and her hands were well decorated with quite impressive bling. She was Thai, either an immigrant at an early age, or first-generation American. I couldn’t be sure of her age, and later found out that she is around thirty years old.

I was sitting two to her left (the young luckbox who chopped the runner runner boat hand with me was between us). As part of my persona-building misdirection, our end of the table was playing the “guess Cardgrrl’s occupation” game, which started when someone asked if I was a professional player (ugh), which I immediately and emphatically denied. Earlier someone had asked to look at the ring I was wearing. It featured letters of the alphabet, but appeared quite abstract from a distance. (To my great dismay, the ring became a casualty of the trip. It fell off my hand somewhere on my way back from AC. I’m quite cranky about that, as it was handcrafted and a special present to myself from a few years back.) I told the table that the ring was a partial clue to my profession, and this led to guesses like “teacher,” “stenographer,” and the like. The young woman ~ who I’ll call DK ~ asked if I were in medicine.

This turned out to be an interesting projection on her part. It emerged that she herself had trained, all the way through her internship, as a medical doctor. She had quit to play poker full-time (needless to say, to the great initial consternation of her family) a couple of years ago. Since then, she has experienced significant success playing both online and live. (I looked up her stats when I got home and was extremely impressed by her results. Not to say downright envious.) She has also written and thought a lot about the game and about the life of a professional player.

I thoroughly enjoyed sitting along side her and watching her work. Her most salient skill was the ability to make the hero call and pick off bluffs or weak hands. I watched her do it over and over again, in situations where I was quite sure that I would have laid down my hand. I also saw, however, the one time she made the hero call and was felted by a stealth set of fours. Her skill at hand reading was not perfect, and was clearly a high-risk/high-reward proposiiton.

I was both intrigued and surprised by her forthrightness in revealing her professional status at the table. Why would anyone do that, I wondered? Now, clearly, in a circumstance where she is playing with the same regulars over and over, it’s not a big deal. But when fish (such as myself, of course) sit down at the table to gamble it up, why would you put them on alert by letting them know you play poker for a living? There are obviously a subset of fish (like me!) who would enjoy the challenge of going up against a self-described pro. But there have to be just as many, if not more, who will play more cautiously and hence less profitably against you if they have reason to believe you have mad skillz.

The best explanation I’ve been able to come up with since is the simplest: loneliness. As I’ve noted before, poker-playing, despite taking place in a social environment, is a solitary business. I think DK decided to trade off a bit of EV (expected value, a term of art that denotes the profit you expect to make, over time, in a given circumstance) for some camaraderie. She somehow mentally categorized me as “peer,” and was simply enjoying the opportunity to exchange relatively candid views with someone she saw—accurately, I might add—more as a potential pal than a threat. (I considered briefly whether it might have been a meta-move of some kind, utterly Machiavellian, and have ruled that out. We have remained in touch since our meeting, and I can think of no way in which that would serve some kind of venal motive on her part.) Curiously, this puts me in somewhat iffy ethical position, since: a) I actually lied about my status as a poker player and 2) I’m now writing about her (albeit having altered some identifying features) and not linking to her or letting her know about it.

I am coming to appreciate more and more how having some professional poker-playing friends, with whom one is not primarily competitive but rather collegial, can be extremely valuable. With whom else can you talk shop? Who else will really appreciate the peculiar challenges and joys of the poker life? And who else can offer advice that is actually born of relevant experience?

DK apparently has a knack for developing and sustaining this kind of friendship, as the other pro I met was her friend Frank, who had traveled to AC with her. They are not a couple, but their closeness leads many who see them together to think so. Apparently the floor at Harrah’s has asked them not to play at the same cash table together for appearance’s sake! (I can only offer my own intuitive assessment: these are two people who would never in a million years soft-play each other. They are way too fierce competitors and too zealous about the integrity of the game.)

Frank presents a very different personality from DK. Where DK has a laid-back, slow, wry way of speaking, and a languid but elegant table presence, Frank is an in-your-face New York wit. He majors in banter, needling, and table-talk. When he’s at the table, you will pay attention to him. He is a genius at getting people to talk about their hands: their holdings, their decision-making process, their perceptions of others (including him). He is a kind of snake-charmer, but it’s not all sweetness and light, there’s definitely an edge to his humor and his temperament. One suspects that there’s a short fuse there, and it’s clear that suffering fools is a skill he’s still working on, in the interest of his profitability.

Frank is probably the least passive table presence I’ve ever encountered. From the moment he sits down he is shaping his image and working to mould the table’s action to suit his game. He is equally effective in tournaments and in cash games. The intelligence was practically visibly boiling off him like heat waves off the blacktop of his charm. It was a frightening combination of psychological street smarts, mathematical precision, and tactical and strategic savvy.

Honestly, I’d like to just follow Frank around for a week to watch him at work. I don’t think his style is one I could ever directly emulate, but there are definitely things I could learn and incorporate into my own. He riffs very effectively off his individual brand of charisma, for example; that’s something I have occasionally managed to do, more by accident than on purpose, which I’d like to deliberate cultivate as a tool in my arsenal.

If I had to guess, I’d say Frank was in his late thirties. His background? Well, it is to laugh. Frank and I went to the same prestigious Ivy League college. He then went on to Harvard Law School and a high-powered legal career. Which he quit to play poker full-time.

Do we detect a pattern here?

These are really, really bright people. They can and have prospered in highly demanding professional fields. They were both perfectly capable of making plenty of money in mainstream occupations. They gave up security, societal approbation, and the normalcy of the “straight” economy for a life of uncertainty and total self-reliance in the marginal, shadow-world of professional gambling.

I haven’t yet heard the full stories of how they arrived in this life. I am sure each of them has a unique trajectory. But I’d wager I can identify some of the features they’re likely to share in common.

I bet they both have something to prove to themselves and are fiercely competitive. They don’t like being told what to do. They dislike having routine schedules and externally imposed deadlines and goals. They are bored when not faced with fresh challenges and new lessons to learn. They feel that they are outsiders even when they are doing the most insider-y kind of professional work. They have finally lost all patience with the expectations of others, whether actual or internalized, but they have cultivated extremely high standards for themselves to replace them. They want the consequences of their choices to redound to them and to them alone. They are very interested in the motivations and decision-making processes of others. And they have a strong addictive or compulsive element in their personalities.

Does that sound like anyone else we know?


Monday, October 13, 2008

Day 56: Back from Vegas

I am back, exhausted but cheerful. I have a cold (I always get sick after I go to Vegas). The circles under my eyes are especially dark. But I am well-pleased because I have determined, to my own satisfaction, that I am officially a not-bad poker-player.

My flight back was on USAirways, in a Boeing 757, and I had the misfortune to be seated in 8b, which has to be the most unpleasant seat in modern aviation. I was stuck between two voluminous muffins who, despite traveling together, insisted that they didn't want to sit together, but wanted me to be the meat in their plump sandwich. The row backs up against a bulkhead, so the seats don't recline. The gentleman in front of me, however, reclined so far back he was practically in my lap ~ perfectly positioned for me to give him a scalp massage. Then the woman on my right asked if she could lift up the armrest between the two of us, which was evidently not comfortable for her BECAUSE SHE WAS TOO BIG for the seat (think: seatbelt extender), so that she could further invade my extremely limited personal space (as if it weren't enough that her jacket was already draped over onto my arms). She got all huffy when I said no. If she had sat next to her traveling companion, they could have lifted the armrest between the two of them and overlapped each other at will, but noooooooo. To add insult to injury, row 8 is right across from the lavatory, so nasty chemical johnny fumes were wafting over us every three minutes for the duration of the entire flight. It was 4.5 hours of genuine unpleasantness; by the end of it I was thinking VERY UNCHARITABLE THOUGHTS in all directions.

Distorted self-portrait
[Squozed photo actually taken on airplane with PhotoBooth distortion.]

All of which I would have been much more prepared to tolerate if I'd gotten more than about 16 hours of sleep the entire time I was away. Which I did not. Or if Vegas had, oh I don't know, actually been warm (it was much nicer in DC then in the desert resort town). Or if the casino had been a little less righteously refrigerated. (Why oh why must they be so arctic? I am not entering another casino without a fleece hoodie. That's all there is to it. Style be damned.)

Okay, I had intended to be posting all the time I was there. I took my laptop, really I did. I also took workout clothes and going-out-on-the-town clothes, neither of which got any use either. Let's face it: if I'm traveling to play poker, I'm going to be in the casino playing poker 80% of the time. Fifteen percent of the time I'll be sleeping, and the remaining time will be divided between eating and talking with friends.

Some quick notes from my trip:

1. There's a reason I never drink at the poker table. On Saturday night/morning, after putting my time in "at the office," I joined some friends at another casino and decided to just play for fun and to be social. So I had a drink or six. Donked off my play money (which was fine, I had set it aside as such). And paid for the whole episode by feeling like crap the next day when I played in the noon tourney at the Venetian. Moral of the story: don't. Which I knew. In future, I will keep the entertainment portion of my travel in a non-alcoholic mode.

2. Table games are Satan. I believe I have covered this topic before, but I feel it bears repeating. No short term profit is worth the long-term losses and the concomitant tsurris. Just don't. Don't. Really. Playing against the house makes people stupid.

3. I went 0 for 3 cashes in tournaments. I didn't play in the most expensive one on Saturday with 40 minute blind levels, and that may have been a mistake, as the longer levels tend to work in my favor. But I was once again reminded how incredibly dependent tournament play is on luck. The escalating blind levels force you to gamble in ways that you never have to in a cash game. My best result was 30th of 240 (I was the last one standing from my A League companions in that one). Only one of our group made a final table, and she got seventh ~ a great showing.

4. Two-five no limit is definitely my game. I swam with the sharks on Saturday at the Venetian, and I survived. That five hours where more than half the table were obvious pros and regulars was the scariest game I have ever played in. I learned a lot but I was terrified the whole time. I played at several other 2/5 tables during my trip that were much, much softer, and they were positively relaxing by comparison. The upshot is: it takes a LOT to scare me now; I am becoming battle-hardened. Further good news is that I made a lot of money. I paid for all my expenses (travel and accommodation and tourney fees) and had a nice chunk left over too. It's hard to overstate what a warm glowy feeling it gives me to know that I can take on the talent at a place like the Venetian (which by the way is an awesome poker room).

5. I stayed, courtesy of another player, three out of the four nights in a deluxe room at the Venetian. It was, by several orders of magnitude, the nicest hotel room I've ever occupied. The bathroom was SICK. The bed was so comfortable that it made the four hours of sleep I got a night almost as good as six. The freakin' drapes were operated by remote control. And if you like TV, you would love this place: flat screens in every room. The whole thing was just insanely off the hook.

When I'm at a hotel, I usually put my toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, and other small necessaries in one of the room's glasses, by the sink. Which is what I did at the Venetian. When I returned to my room the first day, this is what greeted me in the bathroom:

Photo of toiletries
I expected the surgeon to knock on my door at any minute.

Ninja housekeepers, they were scary-good too. They whisked in and out and the place was impeccable. Now if only they didn't overdo the house stink (excuse me, "aroma") that they bombard you with when you arrive in the front reception area. It's really excessive.

I bought myself a little trinket to commemorate my victorious emergence from the shark tank. I will wear it proudly to my next poker game, where it will remind me that I've already beaten some really frightening players. My bankroll is growing along with my confidence; maybe someday I'll be the one striking terror into the hearts of my opponents.

Current live and online bankroll: 109%

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Thursday, October 2, 2008


As a public service, I point you to the new Red Pro Discussion Forum at Pokerroad.

If you want to know what separates these folks from the rest of us punters, just go ahead and follow along as they do hand analysis with one another. I'll be doing my best to learn something from them, no matter that they may be thinking way past my current horizon.


Friday, September 12, 2008

How I Wish...

...that I had discovered poker in college.


Because then maybe I could have been like Vanessa Selbst. (What? We went to the same school!)

You go, girl.