Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Joy of Poker

Those of you following along on my tweets already know the outcome of my trip last weekend to Atlantic City: a big steaming pile of break-even.

And you know what? That's just fine with me.

I had a little mini-revelation on this outing. Despite my decision to let go of the pro-poker dream, I was still playing as if my livelihood depended on it. Now, generally, one might think was a good thing. Discipline, etc. And that's undoubtedly true.

But playing professionally is also notoriously a grind. It's especially a grind when things have not been going one's way for a protracted period of time: the bad results are depressing, and bad results often lead to bad play, which leads to more bad results. It's the most vicious of vicious cycles.

My first day was a downer. Lose lose lose lose. Bleah. No fun. Lots of folding, discipline aplenty, then one dubious decision and buh-bye stack. At day's end, I vowed to myself that I would play my A game in the Circuit tournament. My one and only goal was regret-free poker.

And I did. I played for six hours without making a single error. I watched glumly as the correct folds I made would have turned into table-stacking monsters, but I made the right choices. I was colossally card-dead most of the time, and was presented with very few viable stealing opportunities. More than six hours in, I still had a starting stack, and it was shove-or-fold time. I won a few blinds and antes. I folded KJo to a raise and re-raise in front of me and missed the flopped boat (d'oh!). I finally shoved with pocket 8s and lost to AK behind me.

I was now $700 in the hole for the trip. But I was feeling pretty good about the way I'd played in the tournament, and I wasn't especially tired. I decided that, since I was unlikely to be back in AC in the near future, I might as well mix it up in the cash games again and this time try to actually enjoy it. I took $1000 to the table and promised myself that I was going to play well and have fun: no scared money here, no ubernitiness. I brought out my cheerful, social persona. I was going to have a good time no matter how the cards fell.

And I did, oh yes I did.

My hand selection criterion became: will I have fun playing this hand (in this position, for these stakes, against these players)? My folding, calling, betting, or raising criterion: which action will be most fun?

And because I consider winning money more fun than losing, this didn't change my gameplay a great deal. What it did change was my attitude.

I proceeded to play for six more hours, during which time I completely recouped my loss and made a few bucks to boot. I began to remember why I got hooked on poker in the first place. I rediscovered my inner recreational player.

So that's me, now: I'm a recreational player, and that's okay. In fact, I like it! A great psychological weight has been lifted. My little hobby more than pays for itself, plus I get free hotel rooms and food too. And I now have license to play JUST FOR THE SHEER FUN OF IT. Wheeeeee!

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why Do People Write Poker Strategy Books?

I admit at first I found it baffling. Why would you give away the gold? Why did Doyle Brunson write the first Super System, for example?

Well, he did sell each copy for upwards of $100 a pop, if I recall correctly. My guess is that he ended up making a decent amount of money from the books, although probably not much in comparison to his direct poker earnings.

These days there are a lot of other poker strategy books out there, of varying degrees of accuracy, usefulness, and depth. I suppose their authors make enough money from them for their publication to be worth the effort.

Still, presuming that the authors are also players: why educate your opponents? Wouldn't it make more sense to write a bad poker strategy book and lead people astray?

The consensus seems to be, however, that there are some genuinely good strategy books available. Presumably the folks who wrote them know they are good.

There really is only one possible explanation: even if you read and understand an excellent book, it is still extremely difficult to actually put into practice the advice it offers. So, in order to benefit from a strategy book, the following pieces must be in place: 1) the strategy it proposes must be good; 2) you must acquire and read it; 3) you must both be able to and actually do the work required to understand it; and, finally ~ and by far the most challenging item ~ 4) you must be able to execute the strategy consistently.

My guess is that a lot of people start failing around step 3, and that the vast majority of readers who master step 3 never actually succeed at step 4. Playing winning poker is hard, because although intelligence and knowledge are required, they are far from sufficient. There is a large array of other attributes and behaviors, experiences, habits, and attitudes that make a sound strategy effective ~ and that constellation is fairly rare even in the community of poker enthusiasts.

So go ahead: read the good poker strategy books. Unless you misunderstand or misapply their advice, it certainly won't do you any harm. But don't expect them to provide you with The Keys to the Poker Kingdom. It's just not that simple ~ as their authors surely know.

Labels: ,

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.

Labels: , ,

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?

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Playing Online Will Get WHOLE Lot Harder

If the article mentioned in this post at Mind Hacks doesn't send a chill up your spine, then perhaps you're not grasping the full implications for computer-mediated poker.

How predictable is your play?

Are you sure?

Labels: ,

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.

Labels: ,

Thursday, May 21, 2009

2000+ Good Decisions

What does it take to win a large multi-table tournament, one that has thousands of entrants and runs over the course of three days?

By my calculations, it takes about two thousand good decisions. I figure a three-day event lasts a total of about 34 hours. At a well-run live game, you can see approximately 30 hands an hour. Of those, you'll only play a certain precentage (all told, including short-handed, and heads-up), let's say 20 percent. Some of the decisions will be binary (e.g., continue to play the hand or fold), but a lot of them will have multiple sub-elements (e.g.: choose to raise, and decide how much). I settled on 2000 as a nice round number.

At first blush, two thousand decisions doesn't seem like a lot. But ask yourself: how many times have you gone through the same motion 2000 times without error? (Breathing, blinking, and other autonomic functions don't count.) Do you think you could add 2000 columns of numbers, for example, without once making a mistake? Making 2000 correct decisions in a row, under pressure, is a huge challenge.

Sure, you could make a mistake or two and recover. If you're lucky. But in a tournament, one mistake can also be completely disastrous. You don't have to make the optimal play every time, but you do have to avoid making bad decisions. You have to do the right thing over and over, hour after hour, for two and a half long days of playing.

The next time you describe someone who wins a large-field tournament as a luckbox, remember this. Sure, they probably did run like god. Nobody gets through a huge game like that without running hotter than the sun, having good hands hold up and sucking out when necessary. But nobody makes it through a field that big on luck alone, either. Those people sitting at the final table probably made more good decisions in a row to get there than any athlete in the history of the world has ever made good plays in a row. That takes mental toughness, concentration, and stamina, and it is much harder to do than it looks.

Labels: , ,

Monday, May 4, 2009

Go With Your Read

You've heard this over and over: "go with your read." As I've taken a hard look at my play, one of the things I've noticed is how often I rationalize a decision I would never make if I took my read seriously. I am now trying consciously to both formulate a read (usually a hand range, but sometimes either more or less specific) AND to both refine and respect it as the hand proceeds.

Here are two cases from last night's Crime Scene Game.

#1: I am in middle position with a relatively short stack. There is a limp in early position, I limp in with 10 J suited, it folds to small blind who calls, and the big blind checks his option. The flop is J 7 5 rainbow. The small blind and big blind check, I make a half-pot bet with top pair. The small blind calls, the big blind folds.

The small blind is one of the people who runs the CSG. He is a canny player, and he knows my betting patterns better than I'd like. The check-call tells me that something about that flop appeals to him, but I don't think he's floating my bet with air or with bottom pair. It's possible he has a straight draw, but I think the most likely scenario here is that he's got a 7, he wants to see whether something will develop for his hand, and he's also keeping an eye on me to make sure that I wasn't just making a position bet with air myself.

The turn is a 10. Now I have two pair. Small blind checks. I check behind, purely as a trapping play. I'm pretty sure I'm good here, and there are very few cards that I fear on the river. I am hoping that my opponent will see my check behind as weakness. With most other players in this game I would have bet the turn, but I feel I'll be able to extract most value this way.

Except that the river is a 7. I am now not a happy camper; this is the worst possible card for me. After some hemming and hawing, the small blind goes all in (he has me covered). Is there any hand he could possibly do this with that doesn't have me beat? Even more to the point: am I persuaded that my original read was right?

I sit there for awhile, but honestly most of that time is occupied with me making my peace with the fact that I'm beat. I am totally persuaded he has a 7. I am toast: I fold. [My opponent later told me that he thought I had a straight with 89, that he shoved because he had a 7s full of 10s on the river, thought that the overbet would look weak to me and that I would call. I am inclined to believe him.]

#2: I am in the small blind. Four limpers enter the pot ahead of me. I look at my hand and find KK (red). I make a 1.5xPot bet. I get one caller, from early position. The rest fold. The caller is an action player, who plays any two, but is especially fond of and almost always chases flush draws (he's pretty keen on straight draws too, even if they're gutshots). I've also seen him shove on a flush draw if he has the Ace or the King. The flop comes 9 5 2, two spades.

I do not want him to draw to the flush. I make a pot-sized bet, which is about a quarter of his stack. Without missing a beat he shoves it all into the middle. (I have him covered.) Now what?

Well, I'm getting 4:1 on a call, I think it's likely he's on a flush draw, maybe he's got a pair as well. But there's no way I'm laying down Kings in this spot to this player. I call. He shows a set of deuces. Amazingly, I catch one of my two outs on the turn and go set over set for the win when the river blanks.

I was wrong about his holdings, that time. But now I have been reminded that he'll limp-call a big raise with a tiny pair in the hole (In fact, this behavior is endemic to the CSG and I ran into a flopped set of 3s last night too, again when I had a big hand; on that occasion I laid down my AK top pair top kicker to an all-in reraise. Me, I'm folding those small pairs to a big raise pre-flop). But I don't regret going with my read, since I think a large percentage of the time it would have been right. I am, however, unabashedly grateful for the re-suck King.

So I still believe going with my read is a good practice, especially if I am re-evaluating and testing it on every street. There's little point in HAVING a read, after all, if you don't act upon it. Unless you are prepared to act on it, a "read" is just idle speculation, a sort of self-indulgent daydreaming. An accurate read that you base decisions upon? That, right there, is one big fundamental step towards having an edge.

Labels: , ,

Friday, May 1, 2009

One Good Decision At A Time

In a refreshing turn of events, I won my B League tournament last night, outlasting a field of 25 entrants. Although I played well, I cannot take any credit for the very nice run of cards I also enjoyed. It is a truism that no one wins a tournament without getting lucky several times, and having been at the ugly end of the luck stick many, many times of late, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the truth of the saying when I benefit from it for a change. I have solidified my position atop the leaderboard; with two games to go in the season, it will be very difficult for anyone to catch me.

I am reminded that, above all, in tournaments you cannot afford to make a mistake. Every mistake you make requires an extra-large portion of subsequent good luck to recover from it. Your fundamental job is to minimize the role that probability plays in your success. Don't let variance contribute more than its absolutely unavoidable share to the outcome! That means playing smart: hand selection, position, tournament stage strategy, player analysis, stack management, pot odds and control, and on and on. Any lapse in attention or discipline can be very costly.

Tonight is my last crack at the WSOP subscription series. I am currently in fifth position. The first two positions are pretty much locked up. In order to collect one of the payouts, I have to move up at least one step on the ladder. Several other players are also in the hunt. The challenge for me is to keep my eye on the prize, make one good decision after another, and just skip the mistakes. The rest is in the hands of the poker gods.

[Update: WSOP FAIL. By a couple of points. Gah.]

Labels: ,

Monday, February 23, 2009

Total Information Control

Poker is infowar.

The person who gathers and correctly evaluates information about opponents while simultaneously emitting as little useful information as possible has a huge edge. These two tasks are theoretically separate, but in practice one almost always generates information for others while trying to obtain it for oneself. (The classic "see where I'm at" bet is a great example of a less-than-optimal approach to the problem.*) And sometimes we give away information by trying NOT to give away information. This stuff is tricky.

At the poker table, Big Brother is indeed always watching. (Well, okay, to be fair, not always. Sometimes Big Brother and his buddies are drunk off their asses and just donking it up, paying attention only to their own cards ~ if that ~ and nothing else. Or maybe they're all too stupid or inexperienced to see the value of learning about other people's play or disguising their own. Need I explain why these are the tables you always want to be at?) It is your job to be a better observer than Big Brother, while giving him absolutely nothing helpful to work with.

I will point out that, although quite difficult, TIC is much easier in poker than it is in the rest of life. Which is to say: in the rest of life, it's well nigh impossible. Arguably, this is a good thing, although it may sometimes prove embarrassing, inconvenient, or awkward.

Without further ado, a little case study for your amusement...

When I began this blog six months ago, I was bathed in the warm waters of virtual anonymity. There were a very small number of friends who knew of its existence. Everyone else who dropped by was someone who had an interest in poker and no particular reason to have heard of or met me before. I quite enjoyed having my own private sandbox to build my little castles in, and I felt utterly unselfconscious about what I wrote. Sort of a Garden of Eden pre-apple environment, I suppose. Security through obscurity.

It turns out, however, that unbeknownst to me, my walled garden was breached in mid-October. A writer for the Boston Globe wrote a one-paragraph blurb mentioning this site. And here's where it gets good.

A woman in Boston read the blurb. Her thought process then apparently went something like this: "This woman lives in D.C. and plays poker. My single son lives in the D.C. area and is a fanatical poker player. I must get the two of them together! I will alert him immediately!" And so she did.

The son looked up Raise or Fold. Saw the picture in the sidebar. Read a few posts for confirmation, and immediately realized that he knew me already.

Single Son is the Esteemed Commissioner for my A League.

But it gets better! The Commish shared his discovery with three other players in the A League. For months they followed along, saying nothing, while I happily prattled away here about this and that, including my progress in the league. I thought I was operating incognito, and they cheerfully conspired to let me keep right on thinking so.

This was entirely reasonable and, in retrospect, pretty damned funny. Good for them! (Hoist and re-hoist for me. Oops! :-) )

And then, unexpectedly, a person with a whole lot bigger readership pointed the poker-blog-reading public in my direction. The very next morning my voicemail and email contained several messages of the "Aha! Busted!" variety. I found myself making a bunch of phone calls, hoping that people wouldn't be too cross with me.

One of them was to an A League player, another woman, whom I consider a close friend. It had always been a challenge to me to NOT mention my project to her. Pause here to imagine my mortification when, in an attempt to pre-empt her hearing about it first from another source, I make my confession only to have her say, "Oh, I know all about it. I've known for months."

Oy. It seems we all have pretty good poker faces!

To my great relief, just about everybody to whom I've either "come out" or been outed has been really positive, generous, and supportive of both my writing and my adventure. I consider myself very fortunate indeed in that respect. I think that there are still a fair number of people I play with regularly who are NOT aware of my secret identity, and to the extent I can, I prefer to keep it that way. But, should you wish to let me know that you know, by all means drop me an email or tap me on the shoulder one evening and we can share a laugh at my expense.

So that's where things stand now. It somewhat changes the intended shape of my project. In my fondest dreams, I hoped I would finish the book, cash deep in a big tournament, get a publishing and/or sponsorship contract, and then do the big reveal: TA-DA!

Reality to Cardgrrl: "Not so much." Total Information Control ~ it is, in fact, a pipe-dream.

Oh, and I still have to finish the book, cash deep in a big tournament, and get those contracts. So, yeah, not THAT much has changed at all.

*If you're wondering why this is not a good idea, strategically, consider this familiar nugget of poker wisdom: "Every bet you make should be designed to elicit a call from a weaker hand or a fold from a stronger one." (Can anyone help me track down the origin of that one?) [back to top]

Labels: , ,

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Usual Suspects

You play with the same people long enough, you pay attention, you adjust and they don't, and you ought to be able to beat them.

I think this is where I am with the Crime Scene Game. I know the regulars. I know how they play. I am rarely surprised, these days, when a hand goes to showdown: I know what I'm likely to see.

Whereas, I know that I am capable of surprising them.

I was under the gun (first to act after the big blind). I made a minimum raise. It folded around to the big blind, who tripled my bet. I smooth-called.

The flop came: Js 10c 8s.

The other player checked. I bet two thirds of the pot.
He called.

The turn was: 3c

My opponent checked. I made a half-pot bet.
He called.

The river was: 9h
My opponent led out for about a quarter of the pot.

The range I put him on, given the action and what I know of his style: a mid pocket pair (66, 77, 88, 99), AK, A10 or possibly AJ.

I raised all-in. I had my opponent well-covered, but it was effectively another pot-sized bet for all his chips.

He rolled his eyes, heaved a great sigh of frustration, and folded.

For which I was very grateful: as I dragged the rather substantial pot, I flipped over my pocket deuces.

I rarely show. I think I pissed off my opponent pretty severely by showing this particular bluff, but since I play at this venue often, I need to sow the seeds of doubt periodically. Ninety-five percent of the time when I show down, I have a great hand. When I win without showdown, I muck. Consequently, I have an extremely solid image. But they all need to know I am capable of the all-in bluff.

So that they'll pay me off BOTH when I have the nuts AND when I shove with air.

...Why yes, thank you, I do believe I'll have my cake and eat it too.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 30, 2008

No Sure Thing

From Ed Miller:
After all, you’re not looking for a sure thing. It’s okay if you get caught sometimes. You just need an edge.

It is easy to forget this. We have bankrolls and multiple buy-ins for precisely this reason.

We don't have to win every hand. We just have to play every hand in a way that maximizes its expected value in the long run. That means we'll lose hands like that a certain amount of time. Our bluffs will get snapped off occasionally. The odds will break against us from time to time. THAT'S OKAY.

Lose the battle, win the war. We have more than one soldier, more than one bullet. We are legion, and we know where the edge is.

Labels: , ,