Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Secret to Poker Success

Last night, in a moment of insomniac whimsy, I signed up for a $30 Deepstack NLHE tourney on Pokerstars. More than eight hours later, I won the damn thing, beating 114 other players.

Well, actually, we chopped it heads up, but I was the official winner.

So, winning the tourney 'n' all was nice, especially since it's the only winning of any sort I've done in quite some time, but the real joy was discovering how to mitigate the debilitating boredom and frustration of playing poker online.

It's simple: KNIT.

Knitting is soothing, meditative, calming. It has a de-stressing effect. It keeps the part of your monkey brain that would be cooking up REAL distraction pre-occupied with relatively simple and easily set-aside pastimes, so that when you're ready to turn your full attention to the game, you're not worried about what's going on, well, over there somewhere.

And the bonus: you generally get a knitted item to enjoy when you're done. "Free blankets for everyone! Yeah, that's the ticket!"

And yes, I do believe I may be the slightest bit punchy from lack of sleep? Whyever do you ask?

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009


You'd think that prospect of making or losing money would be sufficient incentive to keep a person focused on the task at hand, wouldn't you? I mean taking other people's money is the object of the game, ultimately, right?

Well, yes.

But the human mind is easily clouded, and our emotions are unruly monkeys just waiting to leap out of the jungle trees and run riot. Furthermore, the fiendishly clever devices of "chips" and "pots" can distract us from remembering that the sole and royal road to success in poker is making good decisions at every juncture.

I will freely admit to being as weak-minded, or more, than the next person. I have found it useful to give myself concrete incentives to make good decisions. These motivators are not perfect, because they are correlated with results, not directly with the quantity or quality of good decisions per se. But, I have to admit, they do work, at least to some degree. They give me something external (not unlike, say, a WSOP bracelet) to strive for. They are a way for me to keep score that is separate from and more concrete than my bankroll.

So, I give you:

The Tournament Charm Bracelet
Each bead represents either a casino tournament win or any tourney cash for more than $1000. Silly as it is, the desire to add another bead to the bracelet is sometimes more motivating than the notion of winning.

The Cash Glass Bead Necklace
This is a new score-keeping program that I've just begun since The Tweak. I have had a tendency in cash games to play longer than I should, and to go on win-tilt. As an exercise in discipline, I have been striving to make sure that ~ having doubled my buy-in (or better) ~ I do not give back my profits. To that end, I am setting aside 1% of my profit from every session where I leave the table with at least double my buy-in toward a glass bead fund. Since the beads cost about $30, each one will represent $3000 or so in profit. If, however, I double up during a session and then end up cashing out for less, I must remove a bead from the necklace until I next double up (or better) and take the profit again. So far, I haven't had to remove the necklace's starter bead, and I am well on my way to my first new bead.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

On The Good Side of Math

It's a weird thing.

When for months (and I'm seriously not exaggerating here) you've been on the wrong side of probability distributions, it feels utterly abnormal when the worst doesn't happen. Something as simple and generally routine as AA holding up ~ as it ought to do about 80% of the time ~ seems like a freakin' miracle.

It feels like the tide coming in.

But everyone knows the tide comes and goes (and yes, there's the occasional devastating tsunami too). There's nothing else to do but try to stay afloat and learn to navigate under all conditions.

Having lost for so long, I know how fragile any win actually is and how thin the margin provided by skill really is. I don't kid myself that three consecutive winning cash sessions mean much of anything. For perspective, my bankroll is now where it was back in November. It's as if the last five months never even happened.

I can only hope I stay on the good side of math for the next five days.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Minor Win

I managed to hold on to my points lead to the end of the B League season, and thus won the cash prize and another little citation on the Plaque of Winners. It's not a whole lot of money, but it's nice for the ego quotient, considering how grim things have been in my live play of late.

I'll take it! (It'll probably almost cover whatever it costs to fix my car. Ugh.)

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Oh what a difference a day makes...

We are told, with good reason, not to be results oriented. The only thing that matters, we are instructed (and quite rightly), is that we make good decisions. We should then be content to let the chips fall as they may.

And it's true. It really is.


Every now and then, ya just gotta win. Otherwise the game is simply soul-crushing and any normal human being is going to give it the hell up. So when I finally had a winning session at the Crime Scene Game on Friday night, when I racked up my bricks of red and cashed out with a nice profit, it was balm to my battered poker ego. My big hands held up. I got away from my losers cheaply. I pulled off a couple of nifty bluffs. I played well, and I had average-to-good luck.

So today, I'm playing with my A League in Manassas. So far, I've busted out of two tournaments early, but made my buy-ins back playing cash. The key thing, though, is that I don't feel like a total, complete, hopeless loser today, and you know what?

That's nice. It's really nice.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A W is a W

It may be a small win, but it's a win.

I didn't cash in my A League tournament, but I did manage to grind out a small profit at the Crime Scene Game. This was mostly courtesy of finally getting value from some big hands that, mirabile dictu!, didn't get destroyed on the river.

Now I only have to do that about twenty times and I'll be back where I started before going to Vegas. Yay.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Game Selection FTW

Well, perhaps the curse has been broken. For once, I was the one putting the beat-down on an opponent, when the card that gave him his full house also made my King high straight flush. I felt a pang of sympathy, really I did, as I dragged the pot.

Apparently it's a good idea to play in games where you're going to be lucky. The trick is just to spot which ones those are. Tonight, for me, it was the Crime Scene Game. I had to take a cab there and back, since my car is once again out of commission (aagh! don't get me started!), but it was definitely worth the taxi fare. At least I made enough to pay for the car fixes, with some left over to make a meaningful contribution to the bankroll reconstruction project.

It was a good night's work. And, I must say, it is really, really nice to not lose.

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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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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Occupational Hazards

So far, I've identified two serious occupational hazards for me, as a poker-player.

The first is the negative impact upon my circadian rhythms and social life of the vampiric hours I keep. For example, last night I got home at about 5 am, and didn't get to sleep until around 6 am. I was so exhausted that I unplugged my landline, and silenced my mobile phone so as to not be disturbed. As a result, I overslept a lunch date with my godmother, and had to make a mad dash to the DMV before it closed to get my car registration renewed (yeah, that's another story, involving a $100 ticket which alerted me to the expiration... unlike, say, getting a notice in advance from the city which they're supposed to send but didn't). This week has also featured my having to cancel dinner plans with friends because the tournament I was in ran impossibly long. I am now facing the possibility of the same scenario happening this coming Saturday... I may just skip the game to avoid it.

The second is potentially even more problematic. Last night I absolutely CRUSHED the Crime Scene Game. Sweet, sweet vindication. Played awesome, ran good. It was just delicious. I made a 200% return on my investment, for an hourly rate of 30.5 BBs. Needless to say, this had both a positive impact on my mood and on my bankroll.

Now, you must know this about me: I am not much of a shopper. I'm simply not one of those gals who particularly enjoys shopping; I buy what I need and like and I'm done. I don't buy things as a therapeutic exercise. I am, by and large, a utilitarian consumer (even, I would argue, when I buy higher end computing devices). And yet... when I had my big score at the Venetian, I bought myself a little souvenir trinket at a jewelry store. It was very modestly priced, I love it, and it has garnered much favorable comment when I wear it.

Today, however, after finishing up at the DMV, I found myself at a Christian Barnard store sporting a going-out-of-business sign. Huge reductions. Bargain bling. Long ago, I bought my favorite watch at Christian Barnard, so I thought I'd stick my head in and see if there was anything cheap and appealing. Well, I found and bought for a song a pretty white gold ring of unusual design. At which point I should have patted myself on the back and walked out. But I did not. Instead I discovered the insidious world of Pandora jewelry, god help me. (As a silversmith and jewelry designer myself, I have to bow to the ingenuity of their scheme.) I now own a necklace, a bracelet, and five charms. Gulp. I am going to have to institute some pretty strict guidelines about acquisition of this stuff, because as far as I can tell it's the gewgaw equivalent of crack.

Needless to say, I would never have given any of this fripperie a second glance if I hadn't just had a big payday at the poker table. But that's exactly the point. Income from the poker table IS MY PAY, and not some kind of "whoo hooo! extra money! let's go spend it! yay!" windfall. I positively cannot afford to make a habit of this sort of thing.

Part of me, though, takes a certain rebellious pleasure in this expenditure. For most of my life, I've spent the absolute minimum amount of time and money on my personal appearance, and eschewed with an almost puritan fervor anything that smacked of unnecessary feminine adornment. Yet the further I plunge into the very masculine world of poker, the more I find myself enjoying gussying-up (nice clothes, cosmetics, and now ~ apparently ~ jewelry). I'm sure there some deep, twisted psychological reason for this, but meh. The key is to keep it all in some kind of moderation.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Day 114: Can't Keep A Good Woman Down

After the smack-around I took on Sunday at the very short-handed Crime Scene game, I was most anxious to return and restore balance, honor, dignity, and wholesomeness to the universe before heading to Atlantic City tomorrow.

And this I did last night. I went in there and schooled their asses. I know it is wrong to gloat. Wrong wrong wrong. And yet, I feel OBLIGED TO GLOAT. Played goot, didn't get bad-beated to speak of, and ~ most famously ~ executed a re-raise on the river with air that won me a giant hand. I was pretty sure that my opponent was weak himself, but my min-raise into a ginormous pot looked exactly like the value-bet of someone with a full house, and my table image kept the man from calling the very small extra amount just to look me up. (I would surely have called there, given the size of the pot. Yeah, I'm paying you off if you have me beat.) The ability to make a move like this is one reason I never show.

I know we are not supposed to be results oriented, but it sure is nice to plump up ye olde bankrolle in advance of my trip. I know we're not supposed to let results dictate our emotional state, but it sure feels good to head out on a winning note. Someday, I hope, I'll be more mature than this.

But until then: HAH!

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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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Monday, November 10, 2008

Day 83: The Road Back

Sorry for the radio silence. I'm working on several new posts, and I've been grinding away extremely industriously at the game, with the goal of restoring my bankroll to its former state of healthy growth.

I'm pleased to report that I'm making progress in that effort. I've been prospering in tournaments and cash games at a decent rate. Last Friday, I cashed in my WSOP subscription series tournament. Tonight I took first of seventeen in my A League's big-buy-in game. I've made a bit playing cash as well.

It's amazing how well I can do when my luck doesn't totally suck.

I still have some more catching up to do, but it's nice to feel that I'm on my way. I have been being a tad fanatical about the effort, though, and I think I'd be wise to ease up and remember that I have other tasks to accomplish as well (such as writing here for you fine folks, my readers).

Combined online and live bankroll: 107%

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Day 68: You Win Some...

...you know how that story goes.

But really, 80% (give or take) of the battle is not letting the whole variance thing drive you insane. I'll have losing session after losing session, online and live, and then a little turnaround will happen and I'll make it all back and a bit more.

After a few days of losing multiple buy-ins, I sortied once more to the Crime Scene game, where I had a very nice run and returned to positive territory on the week for live play. Now all I need is to do the same for my online 'roll.

I did manage, at least, to grind my way back to SilverStar status, having lost it in September. It's not clear to me whether or not VIP points will ever amount to any actual scratch, but I do imagine that if I ever manage to start playing for more substantial stakes online it might offset some of the overhead of rake.

Harrah's offered me a free room for two nights in AC this week, so I'll be heading up there on Tuesday. It'll be interesting to see if my results playing 2/5 continue to be good. I'm a little worried that the mid-week crowd may be mostly tougher regulars rather than tourists or casual players. But how much scarier could they be than that table at the Venetian?

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Day 39: Another Score

I had to stay up 'til dawn to vanquish 691 other runners... But still, it made for a nice little addition to the online bankroll. I turned $2.20 into $290, which is a pretty decent ROI.


NLHE tourney win

I was totally in the groove for this game; a very enjoyable feeling indeed. Utterly dominated the endgame: raise-a-rama, baby!

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Day 35: Finally, A Little Online Satisfaction

And I don't mean that in a pornerific kind of way.

Finally I won something on PokerStars. (Oh, and I'll link to them the moment there's something in it for me. Are you listening, PokerStars? You know, sponsorship, affiliate kick-backs, whatever...)

I've been running really, really badly in both the microstakes cash games and tournaments. My online bankroll took a harsh beating. Thank god for the recent successful AC trip, because otherwise it would have been getting really demoralizing. (This, by the way, is one reason why I think it's a good idea to have a variety of venues for your game ~ and I suppose a variety of games for your venues. It helps even things out, I find.)

All it takes is one decent score to put things to rights, though. A little thing we like to call the Three Dollar HORSE Tournament. In which I conquer 312 other aspirants to take down the game. Ship it, holla!

Screenshot of tournament victory

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Day 21: The Rush

Every poker-player is familiar with the term. You are "on a rush" when you get hand after winning hand, when even the rags you play turn improbably into riches, when you are dealt giant cards over and over, when despite getting your money in the middle way behind you nonetheless pull out a win against the odds. People often advise the lucky person who is on the receiving end of this kind of good fortune to "play the rush," to keep betting any two cards since they seem to be winning no matter what.

Probably the only sensation in poker better than being on a rush is pulling off a successful bluff for a huge pot or your tournament life.

There's even such a thing as a meta-rush ~ generally referred to as "running like God" ~ when you win game after game in a statistically unlikely fashion even for the highly-skilled. This is the kind of rush that builds bankrolls and makes careers. Some of poker's household names, while no doubt excellent players, first became famous thanks to magnificent sustained meta-rushes in tournament play.

No matter how many times you may tell yourself that a rush is as much a part of variance as being card-dead or on a major downswing, it is almost impossible to not really enjoy a rush. It just feels really good. The cliché is "better than sex," but I'm not prepared to go that far. Let's just say, damn good. The rush, and its whopping endorphin payload, is a prime contributor to the addictive nature of games in general. And because of the admixture of a skill component, and the indeterminate ratio of skill to luck in any poker win, it's easy to psychologically "own" the rush, to take credit for it (at least partially), and to thereby become even more confident about one's game.

Confidence makes it easier to be aggressive, and selective aggression is a key element of successful play in poker. Properly channeled, the aggression born of success can feed into a virtuous circle that will buoy the player along ~ maybe even until the next rush hits.

This isn't a merely psychological phenomenon. In competitive sports and games, winners (or the winning team, or even just the team's fans!) experience a spike in testosterone levels and the losers' testosterone levels drop. Increases in testosterone are ~ surprise, surprise ~ linked to increased confidence and aggression. (Yeah, and it'll make you horny too; it may not be better than sex but it sure makes sex seem like a better and better idea, if that's possible.) And, in case you're wondering: women have testosterone too, although at much lower average levels than men, and they experience the same effects when their levels rise.

All of this is to say that, as the saying goes, success breeds success. While it is possible to go on "winner's tilt," and I'll address that at some point, there is no disputing that a string of victories can build a monstrous head of momentum. It is good to be the King.

I don't "play my rush," although I'll egg others on to do so. I know that a good run of cards is just a statistical blip, and promises nothing for the next hand or the one after that. I love it when people get that lucky feeling and start playing trash because they think the good luck fairy has sprinkled them with lucky-dust. Those same people, however, will often have an almost superstitious fear of a person whom they perceive to be on a rush, and will stay out of hands with them when they otherwise would have contested them. So I'll frequently play up my rush for show, to take advantage of that common reaction; or, if they're the more analytical type, I'll lead people to believe I'm playing ATC (any two cards) because I'm on a rush, in hopes they'll play back at me light. Tonight, for example, when we were short-handed I raised and then showed three huge hands in a row (I rarely show my cards) precisely because I wanted people to believe I was on a rush and to fear my raises. Paradoxically, this allowed me thereafter to both get my opponents to fold to my aggression and to wonder if I was now playing napkins and stealing. Perfect.

By now you've probably gathered that I've had my own little rush. This is true; I have now won three tournaments in a row in my A League. I came back from way behind in my first game today, and then absolutely dominated the second from about halfway to the end. As with any tournament win, I got lucky when I needed to and didn't get unlucky when I could have. I am reminding myself, despite all current evidence to the contrary, that I am not a poker goddess.

Is it a little warm in here, though?

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