Monday, 12 February 2007

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

I've been reading some older 2+2 titles recently. Sklanksy and Malmuth have this wonderful way of describing things that reminds me of my graduate school texts. I suppose you have to have gone to graduate school for some science-related field to actually enjoy that dry, dense writing.

I finished Sklansky's Poker, Gaming, and Life, and half of Malmuth's Poker Essays, both of which are collections of essays written for Card Player and other magazines in the late 1980s and 1990s.

One of the general themes that amazes me is their constant discussion of “systems”. It's clear that during the period when writing these essays, their simple ideas for poker planning were new. In many of the essays, they seem forced to actively defend the idea that winning players should treat poker like an endeavor centered around an hourly win rate, which is computed based on how much of a favorite the player is to the game she's selected. On the corners of every essay, they defend the now obvious idea that concepts like “loss limits” and “quitting while ahead” are completely silly for the winning player. In those days, it seems that the idea that you should quit a game only if you aren't a favorite or if your non-poker life calls you away was novel.

I read these defenses and imagine that during the late 80s and early 90s (while I was busy winning a mere $20/week in penny-ante wild-card games and didn't even know that “real poker” even existed) must have been a time of some enlightenment in the poker world. There were people, probably even pros, walking around who believed that the “quit while you are up” strategy was somehow smart play, no matter how good the game was. I suppose these were the same people who walked around saying that Internet thing is just for computer nerds.

Of course, the interesting shred of truth in the win/loss threshold approach (and one that Sklansky and Malmuth ignore, since they are writing only to the winners) is that the system works really well for losing players. Someone who is not a favorite to the game should let the short term luck wash over them and run off with the money if they are lucky enough to get hold of some. And, likewise, when they can't get luck on their side, they are better off running from the games as quickly as they can to limit the amount that strong players can extract from them.

(As a tangent, this is why the only thing that really upsets me in poker is the hit-and-run. It's just about the only strategy a bad player can use to defeat good players — forbidding the cards to even out and allow the good player to recover against the short term luck. In essence, the “quit when your up” is the only weapon the weak player has in her arsenal against a better field.)

I can imagine, though, despite how wrong-headed the beat-the-system approach to poker seems today, that Skalansky's and Malmuth's messages were hard for people to hear. Many people chose life as professional poker players so they didn't have to think about spreadsheets and hourly rates and marketing to the right customer base (i.e., choosing games where you're a favorite). The truth is, if you want to be a pro, or even a regularly winning player, you are just a weird sort of entertainer looking for people who actually want to see your show. You're the travelling circus that has to trick people into thinking the freak show is worth paying for. You are running a business, even if (for the recreational player) only a hobby one. You have to treat it as such and let go of the fanciful notions that somehow you are getting something for nothing.

The idea of “beating the system” using some strategy — be it a win/loss stop or anything else — is a fantasy. Playing poker for a living isn't beating the system; it's actually in a pretty simplistic way of being a cog in the machine. Grinding, that verb we use to describe the profitable poker we all hate to play, is what the real pros actually do.

It's always good when clear thinkers come along and burst the delusional bubbles. And, Sklansky and Malmuth have been doing it for decades. I suppose there must be people out there still living in the bubble, believing that some system gives them the power to beat the games. If so, they should probably all go out and buy these books. :)

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