shipitfish: (cincinnati-kid-betting)

I had built a list of reasons that I'm winding down playing of poker. I mostly wrote them out for myself, and had planned to make proper entries and post them here. As you might guess, because my decision was that I'd wind down my poker efforts, I have been slow to roll out the posts that explore the reasons that I made said decision.

My first reason dealt with the changing nature of game selection, and the second dealt with the concept that I didn't actually start playing (nor is it worth continuing to play) poker for the money. In this installment, I talk about a somewhat controversial issue, which I have long called the “asshole factor”.

In my many years of playing poker, I've discovered that once you reach “real stakes” — somewhere around $10/$20 in limit and $2/$5 in NL/PL — the makeup of people who play settles to a well-defined group. At the lower limits, you find all sorts of vacationing people, friendly folks, and various people who are just recreational players who don't spend a lot of time in the poker world. It's even fun to meet these new people; I know that I met some interesting characters at River Street, for example.

But, rarely do these recreational-focused players venture up to the middle and high limits. Once you get there, there are basically two types of people: (a) semi-pro or pro players who are moving up in stakes, and (b) assholes. The semi-pros/pros might be great people, but if your goal is to be a pro yourself, you don't want your game filled with these people. So, you're left with everyone else — the assholes. It's a simple fact: in my experience, in these games, with rare exceptions, everyone besides the pros are just plain jerks. I have some theories about this.

First, it's a certain class of people who are drawn to higher stakes gambling (BTW, if you aren't over the idea that poker isn't gambling, you should get over it — you are a gambler even if you only gamble (as I do) when you have the best of it). Usually, these non-pros are going have some set of psychological problems. They might be problem gamblers, or at least have an unhealthy relationship with gambling. And, even if this isn't their primary defining psychological illness, but it's likely that the series of illnesses they have are going to make them not nice people to be around.

Such people are often rude, nasty or otherwise generally unbearable. I've found it worse in east coast games than on the west coast, but it's often generally true everywhere. (This might, BTW, be due to the fact that the recreational player on the west coast gambles a bit higher, and therefore you have to go to higher stakes for the game-makeup to settle.)

Even if I believed (although I don't) that the point of life is to do whatever you want, I'm not sure that what I'd want to do is spend my time around these gamblers. Even the ones who aren't unbearable and are instead actually somewhat funny, aren't worth being around either. They are funny in that sad, pathetic way that makes one sick to one's stomach to laugh with (at?) them.

So, when you see me vacationing for a weekend here or there at a casino, you're definitely going to find me at the low-limit tables. If I'm going to spend my time playing poker, I want to meet some friendly people who aren't complete degenerates or pros gunning for cash.

And, if I don't want to play higher, making myself a full-time pro would be silly, because I can't earn enough at those jovial, friendly games to make a real living.

shipitfish: (Default)

I had built a list of reasons that I'm winding down playing of poker. I mostly wrote them out for myself, and had planed to make proper entries and post them here. As you might guess, because my decision was more or less made that I'd wind down my poker efforts, I have been slow to roll out the posts that explore the reasons.

I've been listing the reasons in no particular order; the first I posted was regarding game selection concerns. The second is a bit more nuanced, and I'll begin explaining it by telling a brief story.

A long time ago, I was introduced to someone whom I'd been told was an avid poker player. I asked her what she liked about poker and her quick answer was: I love poker because I love money. I was taken aback. I then made my usual mistake when I'm well informed on a subject: rather than keeping my judgements appropriately to myself, I blurted out an analysis: You'll never be a good poker player if you love money that much.

Of course, this is a counter-intuitive assessment, but nonetheless correct. I first encountered this idea when reading Doyle Brunson, who has said in many fora: to be a successful poker player, you must have a complete disregard for money (or sometimes saying the value of money). Eventually I came to the realization that this was a big factor in my (albeit small-time) poker success as well.

The fact is, I never much cared about money. I have been extremely poor at times (well, “extremely” when consider in relation to my social class, upbringing, and education level — I make no assertions that at my poorest I'm always have it better than most people in the world; we don't actually live in a classless society). At times when I was “poor”, I (like anyone else would) noticed the lack of money to do basic things like rent an apartment without cockroaches, or to have enough money to afford real pasta sauce rather than buying tomato paste and adding water.

But once I had enough money that I could rent a relatively nice apartment, eat out when I wanted to, and own a nice computer (or, have my employers provide them, actually), there wasn't much left that I ever needed. I just never wanted things. I really always hated possessions. I'm known for hording junk because I hate throwing things away, but I found I was just as happy avoiding acquiring things.

When I started playing poker, it was mainly as a competitive effort with the side-effect of getting free pizza money while in college. When I started playing seriously in the early 2000's, it was as an escape of my “regular community” that I had temporarily become fed up with. But, it was never really about the money.

Money to me always seemed like a meaningless thing. In the late 1990s, while my friends ran off to cash in on the Dot.Com boom, I went back to graduate school to hide from what I saw as over-commercialization of the Internet that I loved. Now, I'm staunchly middle class, I've been lucky to get jobs that don't compromise my principles, and it probably will stay this way for the rest of my life. There's nothing I want in my life that a little more money can buy. I can imagine it would be nice to win so-called “life-changing money”, so that I wouldn't have to ask people to pay me to work on the social causes that I care about. (I'm one of these rare people who would do roughly the same job I do now even if I didn't need the money.) However, making money that doesn't instantly make me independently wealthy simply won't improve my life. I just don't have much interest in being a Ferengi.

I feel that I got into trouble when I started to think about poker as something I needed to do to make expenses. I did increase my expense footprint, and it will require some careful financial management to live without the $1,000/month I was pulling from poker. But I can surely figure out how to reduce my expenses enough to make things work.

But, that's somewhat beside the point. The point is that I didn't get into poker for the money. I did, however, get caught up in the poker boom (ironically, after I'd already explicitly avoided the Dot.Com boom). I'd started to like the fact that easy money was coming my way; I was becoming a little bit a Ferengi. But, that's not something I really wanted; I pretended I wanted it, in a way, to justify not giving up, and after a while I even believed that I wanted it. In other words, I convinced myself I wanted “easy money” to keep from throwing myself into something I valued more. I bought into the myth of EV, which assumes a person's time is only valuable to the extent to which that person produces wealth. I do believe in EV in the mathematical abstract. Yet, the quality of life EV, and the EV of world betterment, are both much more important in the equation than the pure financial EV. This belief is why I refused to take Economics in college; it's why I avoided going to work for a start-up. It's just not worth changing my core principles just to keep playing poker.

In the final analysis, I was using poker as a mechanism to avoid spending as much time in the world I really loved (the one to which my career is devoted), because I was a bit burned out, as many who devote their lives to social causes do. I'm not burned out anymore, and in such a situation, poker serves only as a financial EV calculation. Yet, as I told that avid poker player I once met: one can't possibly be good at poker anyway if it's only about the money. The people who do best at poker love the game — they want to be doing nothing else when they are playing poker. I stopped feeling that months and months ago. It just became about the money. But, no matter what my financial EV is, I can't really justify playing for only that, particularly when I know I'm not going to get financially independent from it.

shipitfish: (cincinnati-kid-betting)

Last year, a well-meaning relative bought me Phil Gordon's page-a-day poker calendar, that had exactly one good bit of non-obvious advice for the whole year, which I posted back in August. I came in to work this morning and turned the last page of the calendar, which was left over the long weekend. I found a wonderful quote for the weekend of December 30/31, 2006. I suppose ripping off the pages all year was worth it to find this wonderful quote at the end. I probably didn't read anything more true about poker for the entirety of 2006:

It's hard work. Gambling. Playing poker. Don't let anyone tell you different. Think about what it's like sitting at the poker table with people whose only goal is to cut your throat, take your money, and leave you out back talking to yourself about what went wrong inside. That probably sounds harsh. But that's the way it is at the poker table. If you don't believe me, then you're the lamb that's going off to the slaughter.
&mdash Stu Ungar

More people than ever now play poker “for fun”. Of course it's an enjoyable activity; I don't think any of us would have gotten into it in the first place if it wasn't. But, it's a predatory game in general, and NL HE in particular is the most predatory of all known poker games. I haven't gone all the way to thinking that you need the full-blown killer instinct to win at poker, but to play well, you have to be somewhat jaded about the predatory reality.

shipitfish: (river-street-chips)

[ It's been quite a while since I posted a River Street retrospective, so I decided to write one last night before bed, since I got home from work too late to play any poker. ]

That's him, I'm telling you, I said to Nick. We were standing, waiting for a seat, at one of the tiny two-table poker clubs in Boston a few weeks ago. That's not him. It can't be him; he's not acting anything like him, Nick insisted. I retorted: But, his wedding ring; it looks just like the one he had, and I remember it from when he got married while we were still playing at River Street. Remember, that girlfriend of his that he married? Remember how he left her at home with the fire alarm running while we were playing poker. She couldn't even reach the thing with the step ladder to turn it off, and was calling every ten minutes for an hour to beg for him to come home to take care of it. Then, he'd hang up and say ‘just one more hand, then I'm leaving’?

Nick was still sure it wasn't the same guy. I offered to settle it the way all poker players do: Ok, I'll make a $50 even money prop bet with you that it's him. No? $10, then. C'mon, I know it's him. Nick's doubt eventually had me doubting myself. Could I have misremembered him that completely? After all, this guy seemed pretty calm, and hadn't been stacked the whole time we'd been watching the game.

I tried to think of what he looked like in those days, but the memory that came back was how I got his name wrong at first. A number of people at the River Street game knew him from outside the game; apparently he'd come from the same undergraduate program as some of the other MIT regulars. They had always called him by his last name, which my poor hearing had picked up as “Troy”. I remembered vividly referring to him that way one night in his absence, asking Where's Troy tonight?. No one seemed to know who I was talking about.

Someone finally realized what I was saying, and argued: You think a Chinese guy is named Troy?. Well, I answered, why couldn't he be? By his accent, this “Troy” sounded like he was born and raised somewhere on the east coast. He's as much Chinese culturally as I am Polish — at least a generation or so removed.

This was an academic consideration, of course. As it turned out, all along, they'd been calling Michael (which was his first name, I'd suddenly learned) by his last name — a common Chinese surname that rhymed with Troy. (As a footnote, another River Street regular eventually showed up a few months later carrying from Canada the actual name, Troy. But he's a profile for another time.) I decided that from that point on, I was avoiding the confusion and just calling this guy, “Michael”.

Michael was probably the most excitable player ever to visit River Street. There was no question, frankly, that poker was gambling to him. He played lots of pots; he moved in with nearly every draw. I distinctly remember the first time in NL HE that I ever got bottom set (222) all-in against the nut flush draw. It was heads-up against Michael in Greg's kitchen, sitting in one of the comfy kitchen chairs I'd arrived early to reserve. A good tenth of my bankroll at the time was in that pot. I learned the meaning of “action player”, “gamble”, “redraw” and “EV” in the seconds it took Greg to deal the turn (a flush-making heart) and the river (a board-pairing 8).

But the nut flush draw was just a mild gamble for Michael. He'd play bottom pair to the river in limit HE without thinking twice. In the right mood, he'd push in with just about any ace-high if he had less than half the buy-in. Sometimes, he'd even just have king-high; that is, if it was his favorite hand — his beloved “Ko-jack”. For a number of weeks in that winter and spring of 2004, he was the action of River Street.

Then, he'd go broke. Greg would let him deal, and we'd tip him well. After all, as soon as he'd put together $50 or so, he'd buy in short with his tips, and then go broke. He'd go to the ATM, come back, and go broke. He'd win on Tuesday, take a stake of $20 bills home, bring them back on Thursday and go broke.

That spring, Michael joined a big group of River Street players who went off to Foxwoods for a long weekend. The stories that returned that Tuesday were nearly unbelievable. Michael, so that Tuesday crew was told, had discovered craps. He'd went on an amazing run. He'd been tossing dealers green chips as tokes. He was betting blacks on the pass line on ever new shooter.

Not to disappoint, Michael showed up that Thursday with a pair of red dice. In between poker hands, he'd point at someone across the table and say: You be the house; I'm the new shooter. I don't recall that anyone actually took him up on his offer to bankroll his intra-poker-hand floating craps game, but his excitement for the gamble carried over into every aspect of both games. Invariably, as he'd receive his cards, he'd move those dice from the table to his face, wedging them between his glasses and his eyes. His eyes now closed and covered, he'd squint to hold the dice in place. His head now high, he'd look back across the table, and in a robotic voice, slowly chant: What number am I? … What number am I?

In these days, I had just started learning NL HE cash play and I would often forgo the $1/$2, no max buy-in NL game in the kitchen (particularly when the field seemed tough) and continue with the $3/$6 limit game in the living room after the NL HE game “broke out” from the kitchen's $5/$10 game. It was on one of these occasions that the most unforgettable Michael incident occurred.

It was an average River Street night. We were used to shouts from the kitchen during major all-ins or other surprises in large pots. The NL HE game had been going for a while when we heard an unusually loud screech — enough to freeze up the action in the limit game. Michael came storming down the hallway, caught somewhere between shouting and muttering.

As he approached the front door, which was directly adjacent to the living room, he started to stumble. He had stepped into the mass of removed shoes — a kindness to Greg's neighbors to avoid the noise of 20 people stomping around that top floor River Street apartment. Michael looked down at the piles of shoes, and the muttering continued. He was close enough that I could hear it now: King-Jack. It had to be King-Jack. It had to be my hand. Tears were beginning to swell in Michael's eyes. His gaze narrowed on a lone shoe, separated from the others; he picked it up — examining it, ostensibly to see if it was his. Establishing that it wasn't, he simply hurled it at the front door. King-Jack, King-Jack. Another shoe picked up and thrown. Another, and another. Shouting now: King-Jack; Why did he have my hand!?! Sidney, Greg's loyal canine, ran from the kitchen, barking quietly. The $3/$6 players ceased all movement, the current pot conceded to the confusion.

The situation was escalating quickly, and sitting in the three seat, I was the closest to Michael's current position. I approached, a bit fearful, and asked the rather pointless and already-answered question: What happened?, followed by a quick and almost as pointless Are you alright?, and finally with something marginally useful: Would you like me to help you find your shoes?

By then, the noise had roused Greg. Within seconds, mayhem had ensued. The $3/$6 players were moving about; the $1/$2 NL players were crowding in from the back. Greg quickly shuffled through the now disorganized mess of shoes to find Michael's, as the man himself had collapsed against the wall, his tantrum spent. Greg handed him his shoes, and Michael was out the door before they were on his feet. Michael lingered briefly in the hallway, banging slightly on the door; Greg opened the door briefly, shouting that he should go home. Michael eventually complied.

The details of the hand were never clear but hardly mattered: a sharp player named Josh had called Michael's bet on the flop with on a lark with a running straight draw while holding KJ. It got there and Josh stacked Michael on the river.

As I retell the story, I'm not all that surprised that Nick didn't recognize Michael. The man we saw last month was clearly a different poker player. Sure, when we saw him, he seemed like he was playing a little too loose, and I don't know how many times he rebought. But, he did cash out something, which is certainly better than the old days.

I was cleaning out my email drafts folder recently, as I switched MUAs from mutt to Gnus. I saw a message from mid-2004 drafted to Greg, which read: I am really worried about Michael. After what happened last night and from his behavior after the Foxwoods trip, I think that he might have a gambling problem. I was wondering if. It ended there. I never finished the message.

I hope that Michael has turned over a new leaf. He's not the last person — not even at River Street — whom I've watched descend into something truly ugly because of poker. Had I been a better poker player at the time, I probably would have won hundreds, rather than mere dozens, of dollars from Michael. Somehow, though, I am glad that I was still a pretty bad player back then. I wish you the best, Michael, and I hope you fold KJ preflop most of the time these days.

shipitfish: (partly-cloudy-patriot)

Ok, I have to come clean on something. I think that, albeit temporarily, NL HE bores me. I need a long break from it. At least a month, I think.

I think there are three factors relating to my current boredom. First, NL HE is my primary poker money-maker, and I'm using poker income for some expenses now. Therefore, NL HE has warped in my mind to “work”. And, for most people, and certainly for me, there is a slight piece of passion that leaves you when something you love becomes work.

Second, it's all most people want to play. I attend a a wonderful home game regularly with great people, but the host has given up on the idea of mixed games. We tried it, but many of the guests weren't comfortable learning new games. Of course, I'm going anyway to see everyone, but I have this odd feeling akin to that feeling you get when someone has asked you to help them move. Sure, you always help your friends move when they get a new apartment, but you do it to be helpful and to be social, but not because you can hardly wait to lift up heavy boxes and carry them on and off a U-Haul truck. I'd really want to shake this feeling, but I can't.

Third, I think that I have become somewhat rigid in my thinking about winning at NL HE. I have a set of strategies that work in most of the games I encounter. I am particularly careful about game selection, so I am usually selecting games that I can approach with the few different gears that are most comfortable for me. I lately usually book big winning sessions, or small loss sessions, still plodding along at 5-7 big blinds per hour (or hundred hands). I haven't really been experiencing much wild variance, indeed, almost none at all since I quit playing limit HE for serious stakes back in December.

But, this is clearly a recipe for disaster. Complacency and boredom are the big enemies of one's poker game. I must assiduously combat this. Here are some strategies that I'm considering, some of which I've already begun to implement:

  • When you say, Doctor, it hurts when I stand on my head!, the doctor says Then, don't stand on your head!. Simple enough: it's boring when I play NL HE and I feel I'm getting complacent about my game, so I just shouldn't play it! However, it's tough, because I keep having this thought that somehow not playing NL HE is an affront to the poker boom. In other words, that I am failing to cash in on the free fall of funds from bad players. I think that this thinking is at least somewhat wrong-headed; I can't live my life around cashing in on the boom. Positive EV isn't just about external factors, it relates to your internal approaches to the game. Yet, I struggle.
  • Find ways to enjoy NL HE again. I think attending low stakes NL HE home games is probably a good way to do this. There's basically no pressure to win because the entire session variance is more or less what I'm used to in one hand. I can relax, not feel like I have to extract every penny by absolute perfect observation and situational advantage, and just play. It will help, of course, if the rest of the attendees aren't in a hyper-poker-obsessed mood, but most of the usual crowd at the home games I attend are pretty good about this.
  • Get really into another poker game. The past two weeks, I've played a substantial amount of Stud High, and PLO/8 (and even NL O/8 — odd game), and a little bit of tournament NL HE (the last of which with amazing and statically surprising results). I strangely find that NL HE tournament poker is actually different enough that it doesn't give me entirely the same feeling as cash games do, although there is a bit of a twinge. I've never much liked tournament poker, other than the nice return on investment it can bring, but perhaps that, or some other game, should be a place to focus. Another option is bouncing around a lot in different games, but that is what I had been doing for the last two weeks and it doesn't seem to be helping. Anyone who has suggestions on where some juicy games are of the non-NL HE variety (either online or NYC), I'd be very grateful to hear about them. There is a $15/$30 limit O/8 game in NYC that I've heard about, and I'm thinking of giving a whirl, but I probably need some additional O/8 practice for lower stakes before I do.
  • Find mixed games. For those who are interested, C.H.'s game is getting going again soon, which is a $4/$8 limit mixed home game. I'm going to go there if he gets enough players. (If you are in NYC and want to play, feel free to email me for an introduction.) I've also been giving serious consideration to running a mixed home game at my place, but I am a bit concerned that it'll be difficult to find a pool of players who want to play mixed games at stakes I'd want to run. I'll probably post a poll about it later this week.

I am curious to hear from others about any “ruts of disinterest” you've had in your best game. This is my first experience of this. At the time when limit HE was my preferred game, I ended up switching to NL HE because of frustration at the high variance in limit HE, not temporary disinterest. Have you ever been playing a game profitably, successfully, and enjoyably and then gotten bored with it for a while? If so, what game was it and how did you get over your boredom? (This could also go beyond poker to things like bridge, scrabble, and chess, I would think.)

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

Back in March, I mentioned that I was hoping to write up various cognitive biases and how they relate to poker. I'd first like to cover the trait ascription bias, because I think it drives at the heart of one of the first things poker books teach us.

All introductory poker books tell us to profile players at our table. Generally, there are four categories: tight-weak, tight-aggressive, loose-passive, and loose-aggressive. We are often encouraged to make these assessments quickly.

However, the trait ascription bias indicates that people are more complicated than that. For new players, these four categories are a way to begin to learn how to classify the play of others. But, if you are finding, as you advance, that you still have only six words you use to describe someone's play, you have fallen into the trait ascription bias.

The answer, of course, is right there in the “other half” of the bias' definition. If you monitor your own play carefully, you'll see that you have probably fallen into every single one of those categories from time to time. Of course, your natural tendency is in one specific place. (Schoonmaker's Psychology of Poker helps you fill out nice charts to understand yours and others natural tendencies.) But, you have the ability to move around in tendencies based on your mood, the game conditions, or even how much sleep you've had.

Other people are like this, too. Greg (of River Street) once told me that he doesn't like to take notes on players online, but rather focus on “session reads” to see where the players are at the given moment. There is some serious value in this, because it helps Greg avoid the trait ascription bias by not stereotyping players.

I have done reasonably well avoiding it, but in a different way. My online notes usually say things like this: I've seen this player do X in situation Y. In other words, I keep track of what I've seen, but don't ascribe to it any particular classification. You begin to understand tendencies when you observe similar behavior over long periods of time, but at each given moment, you have to assume that it is not necessarily a predictor of future behavior until it is observable as a pattern.

Another piece of this trait attribution puzzle is that people learn. I mentioned a while back that I recently played W.D. heads up. I played my usual hyper-aggressive heads-up style against him which failed to work. He's learned a lot of poker since the last time we sat down. I fell into the trait ascription bias by assuming that his skill had stayed static, when of course it hadn't. It had been months since we played heads-up, and I had actually been a witness to his improvement, as we talk about poker almost daily! Trait attribution bias can be quite strong if it can cause someone to hold the bias in a situation that they have personally witnessed change.

shipitfish: (river-street-chips)

I started working on another post about River Street (I promise, it's coming soon, [livejournal.com profile] salvelinus), and it got me thinking about poker communities. River Street made my poker life into a community. I honestly have never felt part of a community in poker since then. These days, I am in poker as I am in most things — an outsider looking in.

Poker has become a solitary activity. I do play mostly online at the moment, simply because the EV is better. But, even when I was travelling weekly to Foxwoods or playing a few times a week at the games in NYC, I was generally not part of a specific community.

As an outsider, I often wonder if the poker communities that I see around me are genuine. Are people really friends in poker? How much time do they spend together? How much time do they spend talking about the game? Are their friendships primarily outside of poker or is poker the central commonality that holds the relationships together? I admit that while I can often make great reads of people and their tendencies at the poker table, relationships — even those in poker — have usually remained completely mysterious.

My closest poker-playing friends are simply not as deeply into it as I am (e.g., W.D. and [livejournal.com profile] nick_marden), and our relationships are primarily defined in commonalities that are wholly outside of poker. So, I naturally wonder what I'm missing that these seemingly tight nit groups of poker players have. Do players in these groups have an edge over the solitary, self-motivated player? Is there more to be learned by having a group than going it alone? Is poker more fun and less lonely that way?

Oddly, I got seriously into poker primarily as a way to meet people outside of the computer science world and expand my horizons. But, ironically, I don't meet many people anymore in poker. Sure, just like on a plane ride, I meet the occasional “single-serving friend” at the tables, but I rarely ever see that person again. I am certainly not finding friends easily in poker anymore; I am mostly just showing up to take their money.

From time to time, I have thought about getting out there and just building a poker community myself. I was reminded of this when Howard Lederer talked on The Circuit recently about the group that came out of the old Mayfair club right here in NYC. They became some of the best in the world because they came together as part of a group that learned from each other. The NYC poker clubs of today are too transient now to make that happen. Nevertheless, the idea of forming a poker study group has crossed my mind more than twice. I wonder, though, if it would be worth the effort. I doubt that anyone in NYC but me is enough of a poker geek to show up regularly to sit around and talk about poker without even playing it. But, I'm still thinking about it, anyway.

As for online “communities”, like the 2+2 fora, such things aren't for me anymore. As a lifelong computer geek, I've already spent far too much of my life substituting online venues for real life interaction, and I resolved long ago not to do that anymore. It's real life or burst, at least in that arena.

shipitfish: (partly-cloudy-patriot)

I have always loved games. Card games of all sorts — gin rummy, rummy 500 (the “old lady” version of gin rummy), canasta, hearts, pinochle — I played every last one of them. I could once recite verbatim the rules of every known card game in According to Hoyle.

In high school and college, I got serious about other types of games. I am enough of a geek to admit I played an awful lot of Dungeons and Dragons and similar role playing games. Those have helped my poker immensely, because they are so much more about the psychology of your fellow players and how they are likely to react to your actions.

Games were always a huge part of my life. Even though I admit it's a bit pathetic, the phrase, “it's only a game”, never had any meaning to me. Nothing was ever only a game to me. Games mattered. Playing them correctly and determining the proper way of playing mattered. Winning mattered some, but I never minded if I thought I did the right thing. (I was destine, in other words, to be comfortable with bad beats.)

Of course, by late high school, even though chess was still a big part of my life (admittedly, I was never very good at any game where complete information was available to all players), poker was my preferred game. C.M. (my college poker and chess friend) and I ran the weekly poker games in my college dorm. I (retroactively) call them “$5 buy-in pot limit dealer's choice mixed games&rquo;, but at the time it was just “poker”. I payed for most of my pizza in college with money won in those games; a usual good take was about $15 for an evening — honestly a lot of money for college students in those days.

In graduate school, I got interested some in Diplomacy. Of all the games I've ever played, I think it is most similar to poker. Diplomacy is a board game where the winner is determined by who negotiates best with the other players. There are bluffs (usually called “stabs” in Diplomacy-speak), where you make promises to support another player's armies and then don't. There are moves similar to defensive bets, and over-bets, and slow-plays. Someday, I had actually thought I'd write up a comparison between Diplomacy and poker, but I don't think I ever will. My love for Diplomacy doesn't seem sustainable.

When I took a break from poker recently, I got pretty serious about Diplomacy again. I signed up for a few Internet games. They take a long time to play (usually live games take 7 hours and Internet games, since all communication happens in writing rather than verbal, can take months). I'm still in the two games, but I have all but given up on trying anymore.

I have noticed an old frustration of mine. When there is no external reward (i.e., the money in poker), I find that people don't take the game seriously. And, it has the side-effect of making me want to quit playing. In both my Diplomacy games, two players have quit mid-game. Others had some early losses and gave up rather than play their best. (Comebacks happen often in Diplomacy, so you should never give up.) Others simply lost interest and aren't playing the game fully. Either way, the games turned sour because there was no real competition.

I started to think about why I don't feel this way about poker. The answer is quite obvious, actually. When people don't take poker seriously, I get free money (or, at least, situations with wonderfully positive EV). One of two things happen when you play poker: you are challenged by opponents that you have to work hard to outplay, or you are presented with lots of great EV situations. Either way, you win.

Meanwhile, if you play a game where nothing of value is on the line against opponents who don't take it seriously, what's the point? You get frustrated; well, at least I do. I remember a time in my life when I would get so angry at such a thing — people didn't see the games as important as I did and I couldn't stand it. Since then, two things have happened: (a) I am more likely to realize that I don't have control of other people's actions, so I just quit the game, and (b) I'm usually playing a game (namely, poker) that rewards me no matter what others do. I either get an enjoyable, serious, challenge game, or I get really good EV.

Other games could be like this, I guess. I can imagine a Diplomacy game where the seven players put up money to make a prize pool. Diplomacy even has, as part of its tradition, negotiated settlements (where people agree to end the game with a certain number of players remaining). Those negotiations would be very interesting if there were money to be won. Indeed, I can imagine that people would rediscover the game and how amazing it is if there was serious money in it.

I have to admit, though, a twinge of sadness that games are about money for me now. I guess the truth is that almost all people don't love games the way I do. I'd guess around 1% of the population feels as I do about games. So, odds are that my opponents won't ever have that same love for it, and they won't ever take it as seriously. So, I will usually have to “settle for” playing against players who just don't love the game like I do, and who want to give their money away to better players. It's a nice thing to settle for, but it still leaves some sense of loss.

Going back to Diplomacy reminded me, though, that poker is truly unique. It's an almost magical game of psychology, played for money with cards and chips. No other game really compares to it, because no other game has all these aspects. No other game digs at the deep psychological roots of how people feel about losing and winning money. I could imagine Diplomacy getting the job done in this regard, but I don't think there any high stakes Diplomacy clubs sprouting up soon. It certainly won't be a casino attraction.

So, I'll stick to poker. It's a wonderful game, and while I have a twinge of regret that I won't sit for hours figuring the best opening moves when I've been drawn Austria against an aggressive Turkey, I will still have plenty of game strategy to think about against a nice array of opponents. That is, until the poker bubble bursts.

shipitfish: (partly-cloudy-patriot)

In Computer Science, there is a classic series academic papers and correspondence between two of the most famous theorists of the field called Goto Considered Harmful. “Considered Harmful” has since become a somewhat clichéd way of opening a discussion pointing out that a certain common component of a given discipline gets in the way of its clear-minded practice.

It is in this spirit that I put forward the idea that bravado — in particular, male bravado — is bad for poker. You might also call it (metaphorically) testosterone, one-up-manship, narcissistic over-confidence, or in the crass words of Mike Matusow, “Greg, I've got big cahones, you've got little, bitty cahones”. Culturally, this tendency is more male than female, and some men have a difficult time clearing their head enough to see past it.

This first came to mind today when I watched a recorded episode of Inside Poker (a low-budget poker show in syndication here in NYC on SNY), where Annie Duke was interviewed by Matt Savage. Matt asked Annie the usual annoying questions about women in poker are not “winning enough championships”. Annie — being very “on message” about the issue (having surely been asked too often about it) — pointed out that if you look at 2004 WSoP (not counting the women-only event), women made up 5% of the tournament fields, but won 10% of the events. She also added that since men generally give women less respect in the game, they get in better spots because they can trap the (95% male) opponents better.

I really believe that men in our culture have some negative psychological issues with competitiveness. Of course, a reasonable level of competitiveness is good in poker. But, so easily, that competitiveness can go overboard for many men. It's not that it is impossible that women can have the same problem, but I think that cultural conditioning has led many men to think too much in terms of winning and conquering at the expense of clear thinking.

I have experienced this a lot in my own poker life. I have invested a good deal in poker friendships with men who turn out to be a little too obsessed with money, wealth, success and other such Freudian measures of manliness. This works out ok for me when they are better players, as I am clearly not the alpha male in the situation. I then have an opportunity to learn from them. However, in those situations where it begins to seem that maybe I'm a better player than they are, things get creepy.

Some men just have this need to dominate other men. They tend to want to surround themselves with with people that they just barely outrank — perhaps just below their par. Then, they can feel challenged, but still dominate. Such men have the hardest time taking criticism or a loss, and then look for ways to embarrass, insult, needle or mistreat the other when it doesn't seem they can prove their dominance in another way. Other times, they become obsessed with showing off how “successful” they are away from the poker table.

I've ended up in more than one relationship like that. I've learned to break them off when they turn ugly, rather than forgive and forget, only to be mistreated again. Usually, the straw that breaks the proverbial camel's back isn't a big one, so I wouldn't be surprised if the perception is that I have flaked rather than terminated an obvious bad relationship. I've tried to be more explicit, but it doesn't seem to help with people so obsessed with competitiveness.

Of course, being that way negatively impacts one's poker game. If you are that type of man, you are going to end up pushing away the people who can really teach you something and draw closer those that you can beat. I'm all for once in a while sitting down in a lower-stakes, ultra-soft game of strangers to help build your confidence (I actually did that recently myself, more on that later), but doing so among your circle of friends speaks to some degree of sickness.

Not only that, but you are simply not going to properly see when their are leaks in your game. This over-competitiveness exacerbates the tendency for weak players to obsessively blame luck and mentally block the idea that they could play badly. You won't hear the advice when someone points out mistakes. This is precisely why I always assume all losses in poker are my fault until I can prove beyond all reasonable doubt that I've done the right thing. Assuming yourself guilty until proven innocent in poker is always a good plan.

Not only that, but the best friendships are built from mutual respect and admiration. Focusing on beating your friends isn't going to keep them engaged. It's wonderful for me to know [livejournal.com profile] nick_marden, who started out (like the rest of us) as a total fish. He's now a substantially better tournament player than I ever was, and he's helping me train for the WSoP. Last week, I played W.D. in a heads-up NL HE cash game, and he beat me, somewhat easily. He's completely adjusted to my overly aggressive heads-up style and traps me for big pots with ease. I don't even know if I have the best of it anymore against him! Rather than being threatened, I think this is just great!

The bravado that so many men bring to the poker table holds them back and makes the game about their own psychology rather than the external psychological and game theoretical aspects of the game. In The Godfather, when Michael says, “It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business.”, he's showing that self-delusion that keeps poker players from seeing what is really going on with their game. It is personal for so many men; it's about personal power, individual domination, and control. You need a healthy dose of those qualities to win, but you can easily overdose.

Honestly, as politically incorrect as it might be to say so, I have to wonder if this is the reason women players often seem to do better than most men. Women seem to better manage a healthy sense of those things without going overboard, and successful female players like Jennifer Harman and Annie Duke indicate that this is sometimes a contributing factor to their success. Too many men make it all about their ego. Poker players are famous for having egos too big for them, and it's often the cause of their biggest leaks. It's also part of the puzzle why it seems that so many “friendships” in the poker world are a bit of a sham, looking more like a pack of wolves than a meeting of the minds by caring and kind human beings.

Anyway, so many times at the poker table, when my id is telling me to raise it up every time, and my ego says “don't let that jock come over the top of you again”, I am grateful for my overdeveloped superego that tells me actually analyze the situation and make the right play. And, I'm even more grateful that same level of self-control helps me make some real poker friends to help me analyze the play honestly.

Ok, enough pop psychology for the day.

shipitfish: (poker-not-crime)

I am sitting here slowly recovering from the “bad beat” W.D. put on me — not a poker one, but a plane-caught cold he brought back from Asia and shared with the office. The coughing is annoying, so to distract myself, I'm playing micro-limit online poker (so I don't abuse my bankroll while sick) and watching television.

Of course, nearly every hour of the day there's another poker show on televison. Most of them are pointless. Producers have not completely figured out yet: people don't want to watch amatuers play, as if poker were some sort of game show!

Perhaps the worst of these shows is YES Network and Party Poker's Boston vs. New York Poker Challenge. I suppose the worst part about this game to me is that I have played with at least half of the players. As someone who spent a lot of time playing poker in both Boston and NYC during the poker boom, I've run into just about everyone who has spent more than a few weeks at poker games in either city.

And, for about fifteen seconds, my reaction to the show was: “Wow, people I know on TV”. Then, I realized that I didn't really like hanging out with nearly any of them when I played regularly in the home games and clubs of Boston and NYC! Of the half I know, there is only one person on the whole show who has extremely strong poker skills (he's a Boston player previously mentioned in this journal years back, for those who want to hunt). And, while he's not a bad guy, he's not the friendliest of folks — he plays poker to take people's money, not to make friends. The rest, well, their company is not the most high quality out there.

Truth is, sitting here, coughing and watching this awful show like it's a train wreck I can't turn my head from, I am reminded that, in poker, I spend a lot of time with unlikeable people. There's a meme going around the NYC poker blogs that states if you want to be a winning poker player, you have to hang around with losers. It's a fact that is difficult to argue; good players choose good games with weak competition. Weak players are, by definition, losers.

On the other hand, it is not that simple. I was a fish in my River Street NL days. While I might have been a loser (per se) in the game, I was working hard to get better at the game and learn more. I was able to keep even by the final days, because I simply passed chips from the truely terrible players to the very good ones.

I wonder if I felt so strongly and positively about that game and the people in it because I was a little bit the fish. When I play now, and find tables with only two or three strong players out of ten, and the rest mostly jerks who I wouldn't think to spend time with otherwise, I wonder why I am playing. If it's for the money merely, I have to consider if I would stay in a job with a mix of co-workers identical to the nightly line up at your average NYC, Foxwoods, or AC poker game. And online? Heck, I can barely stand to have the chat boxes on at all. The level of homophobic remarks alone are enough to make any reasonable person ill.

Ironically, I had been thinking lately that I want to see if the New York clubs are still as bad in this respect as they were the last few times I went. Of course, I won't discover another River Street hiding under a subway station in downtown Manhattan. But, perhaps there is a community of players that has a good mix, where the losers aren't insufferable. Or, maybe the games will be so lucrative again that I won't care so much.

Whatever the NYC poker scene is now or becomes, I'm sure that I don't want to watch it on TV. If I am in a game myself, I have to watch the other players as I try to think as they do and learn as much as I can about their psychology. But, if they aren't the best players in the world, it's going to be downright boring to do that as a mere spectator. If it wasn't for the coughing fits drowning out weak players explaining how they are “in it to win it”, I am sure I'd have changed the channel by now. Oh, wait, I have a High Stakes Poker episode on TiVo.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

Like most people of reasonable intelligence who have a disdain for the corporate world, I spent far too much time in the academic world. I have an utterly useless Master's degree in Computer Science, that I pursued only because corporate technology jobs were sucking my will to live and I couldn't think of anything else to do. During my time in graduate school, I also spent a year teaching high school. I got out of the whole experience alive, without spending years of my life writing a PhD dissertation that only five people would ever read. I sometimes consider it a narrow escape.

There are, however, certain principles of academic work that create useful lifelong habits. Frankly, the academic “skill” of pouring over mounds of seemingly useless information, condensing it into something vaguely applicable, and then going out and trying to make something of it has served me well in life, and in poker, especially. There are certain ways in which a rigorous pursuit poker success is like the academic lifestyle.

The most obvious graduate school principle that applies to poker is the need for constant yet independent study. There is rarely heavy structure in graduate programs, and so it is in poker. You can hire a coach (adviser), you can talk about hands with friends online and offline (study groups), but you are more or less on your own to learn.

But, the most interesting aspect of my years as teacher and student that have helped my poker game relates to development of “level 2” play. For those who aren't familiar with the term (or are more familiar with different phrasing), I'll digress a bit to define these so-called levels of play:

Level 1:
Knowing what hand you have (and its relative strength in given situations).
Level 2:
Knowing what hand your opponent has.
Level 3:
Knowing what hand your opponent thinks you have.
Level 4:
Knowing what hand your opponent thinks you think that he has.

Popular theories state that your best edge comes when you are thinking one level deeper than your opponent. (Personally, I think anything past level-3 is pure game theory, and it isn't worth psyching yourself out with it — if your opponent is that tough, just make the play that a rigorous game theoretical analysis suggests instead.)

I admit that I spent probably a year or two skating between levels 1 and 2. Not that I wasn't capable of deep thought, and even hitting the magical level-4 on occasion against players I knew well. However, your poker results come not from your maximal capability, but the skills you can sustain constantly for the duration of many sessions. For a long time, I spent most of my time on level-1, and my results showed it.

These days, I'm on level-2 consistently. (And, with good game selection, I rarely encounter opponents who spend most of their session on level-2, thus limiting my need for level-3.) I got there by slowly building level-1 thinking into my hypothalamus, so that it never becomes conscious enough to cloud my active mind, which remains focused on level-2. My goal, of course, is to make that level-2 thinking as solid and ingrained as my level-1 thinking has become. Lately, I've thought about how my academic experiences aid in this process.

The connection wasn't obvious at first. I put it together when listening closely to whiny rants of “good players”, complaining that games with too many “donkeys” aren't beatable because these “donkeys” play too illogically. I can't possibly put them on that hand, these “good players” lament. I always thought such statements were ludicrous: if a player has less skill in this game of skill, you should beat him in the long run, right? Of course! It's not that level-2 thinking doesn't work here, it's that you have to work (ironically) a bit harder at it.

When I'm playing against weak, level-1-struggling opponents, it's much like being a graduate student in a room full of undergraduates, or, in the most extreme cases, like standing in front of my high school students as a young Computer Science teacher. Do you remember, by the way, that excellent TA you had your freshman year, who made everything so clear? How about the terrible one who was useless in the problem sessions because everything he said was over your head? And in high school: remember that teacher that droned on Ben-Stein-style, and the one who dynamically engaged the students?

What often separates good TA's from bad ones, and good teachers from bad ones is their ability to have some level-2 thinking about their students. The best teachers reach back to the time in their lives when they didn't understand the material. Every teacher was once a student, it's just that most of them have forgotten what it was like. Wisdom and knowledge have replaced that confusion, that flawed logic, and that unclear reasoning. However, the best teachers that can revisit that spot in their past, and walk the student through the jumble into clarity.

When you are up against clueless “donks”, who are still struggling to understand when to raise or fold holding top pair, you have to get down to their level. They don't think the way you think; you've progressed beyond their level-1 thinking and have ingrained good, strong level-1 thought into your routine. But, for you to properly use your level-2 edge against them, you have to trace their flawed thought patterns. Like the teacher guiding students through murky, complicated new material, you have to set aside your own deep knowledge of the game and think like they think.

If nothing else, it will keep your game fresh. Sure, there are only so many “right ways” for you to play a flopped set on a two-tone board. You probably know and have tried them all and know the trade-offs. But, that guy across the table from you hasn't. He may still think min-raising is the right play. He might think slow-playing is correct. He might even be so confused, and not even realize the strength of his hand at all, and just call on every street!

It's your job to think like he does, not try to to graft your logic onto his play. Don't rhetorically ask What was he thinking!?! in pure disgust; instead, ask yourself that question seriously. It's your job as a good player to have a reasonable response. Indeed, if you're playing your best game, you should be able to give a dissertation on his muddled sophistry.


Hmm, maybe my narrow escape from obscure academic knowledge wasn't as clean as I thought. I'll ponder that the next time I'm writing the 20-page psychology thesis in my mind's eye entitled: Tonight's Big Fish: How he Overplays Top Pair but Only on Boards With Straight Draws.

shipitfish: (partly-cloudy-patriot)

One of my readers whom I know in Real Life urged me not to start posting again by making the stereotypical blog apologies for a hiatus. So, as a compromise, I'll keep it short: I apologize to my readers for my (effectively) two month disappearance.

I've learned that once-a-day isn't a sustainable post rate for me. I made it work through March, but as I had a busy April and May, I was left with the feeling of “Well, I can't possibly post every day this week, so why post at all?”. I'll try to be more realistic about what and when I can write.

Besides my non-poker life, which intruded quite a bit the last two months, I also made a big change in the last three months. I made a decision to add an additional major monthly financial expense (about $1,100 each month), and I decided to fund that major expense out of poker.

I did this for a few reasons. First, this expense was very important, and I couldn't really find an easy way to fund it from my regular work income. But, second and more importantly to my poker content readers, I wanted to experiment with having to rely on poker income for something. This is a step toward learning to be a professional in more of a full-time capacity; I have to take these steps if I'm going to be a full-time professional by February 2016.

I have to be honest, however. I have not really enjoyed the experience. Once before in my life, I converted my hobby into a career. While I wouldn't change that, because I like my current career much better than what I used to do, I do recall that my excitement, interest, and focus in the area was greatly reduced when I switched. It became “just a job”. The past few months have been a taste of reliving that experience.

With the pressure to pull in a grand a month, I've found that I can't take a lackadaisical attitude toward poker play. It needs to be scheduled, and I have to think hard about when and where to play games. This means, for example, that live (in person) play is generally a financially bad decision! The collapse of the NYC poker scene (that's a bit of a “Chicken Little exaggeration” there, but I'll write later this week on why I call it that), means that there are virtually no good public games going and the private games are either very small (enthusiasts getting together for small stakes) or very big (famous and infamous local games for very wealthy people and local pros). Plus, the overhead of playing live — be it in Atlantic City, Foxwoods, or even in NYC — is extremely high compared to the easy-to-schedule, great and quick game selection, no-tipping online games.

I also have found myself seeking and playing in games that are much below my level because of the ease (and therefore low-variance) of play. For example, sitting in three $0.50/$1 blind games can easily yield me a few hundred each evening when I win, and the losses usually aren't too terrible (in the $50-$100 range for an evening) when I lose. Since I have this specific target of “a grand a month”, this is much safer way to play than seeking the biggest games that (a) my bankroll can handle and (b) I can beat with my best play. But, playing one table like that is generally higher variance and requires more concentration, leaving me not multi-tabling. The choice quickly becomes a no-brainer: multi-tabling against the truly clueless.

I've also found that my frustration level at losses has gone up more when I am relying on the money with a deadline. I find myself annoyed by a mere $100 of loss, which is so little compared to “normal” session variance that I'm accustom to. (Indeed, it's truly nothing compared to what my limit variance used to be — I'll be writing more about NL vs. limit variance soon). When I started experience this “easy annoyance”, I became worried that it would have a negative impact my ability to play well. Any annoyance with a loss can yield problems in one's game. However, with this monthly goal-focused attitude, that annoyance actually leads me play harder. I was pleasantly surprised by my own reaction here, frankly. But, the fact that I've been playing my best game with minimal mistakes for months straight is probably the only real benefit that I'm getting from this goal.

Poker done this way can really feel a bit empty. It's like playing in a holding pattern, where I am confident I'll scrape together that thousand by the end of the month, but my bankroll will stay at about the same level and I'll just keep grinding it out at the same level. I also hate the fact that live play doesn't make economic and scheduling sense in this scenario. I've always enjoyed playing live, focusing on reads and psychology, than being a pure grinder. But, people grind for a reason: it makes easy, solid cash.

The other negative is that my focus on direct monthly profit has made me feel like journaling time is all but wasted. I enjoy writing here, but from a poker-profit point of view, it's mostly dead time. There's no question that discussing poker here has improved my game, but, if I am able to stick to my best game, there's not much more I need to learn to beat a couple of $0.50/$1 NL HE tables for a grand a month.

Just as they have at every step, these facts makes me question whether I really want to do this professionally. I have years to think about that question, and, of course, at the end of those years, the worst case scenario is that I've spent time getting really good at a life-long hobby that has interested me since childhood. Still, I have to wonder if my first instinct about working toward primarily a poker profession was right: “Do I really want to turn my beloved hobby into ‘just another job’ for the second time in my life?“

shipitfish: (partly-cloudy-patriot)

Work has kept me far away from poker for at least three weeks. I've certainly missed it. Catching up on everything back in the poker world reminds me so much of how crazy the people are about money.

In particular, I was quickly reminded upon reentry into the poker world of the strange group of recreational players I find in most of the online games, in many casinos, and sometimes even in the clubs of NYC. These are recreational players who usually take poker as this grand competition — the ultimate measuring stick of their manhood. They amaze me, these folks. The most intriguing aspect of their approach to the game is how they react to losses. When they lose, some of them often try hard to convince anyone who'll listen that they don't need to win. They flash their fancy watches; they say they are “rich already” and just want to “blow off some steam” playing some poker. This is often moments after saying how much they enjoy the competition and beating their fellow man in a competition of wits and psychological manipulation. They protest too much, methinks.

Of course, there's a part of me that's just another one of these recreational players. I don't want to dismiss that maybe I'm not all that different. How much of my poker play is a need for some competition? Do I discount that when I lose? How much am I like them?

I believe that these are central questions of success and self-improvement. Poker is a controlled universe that one can use to build character and reach for success. I watch these other recreational players oscillate between that desire for excellence and the pretension that they are “are gamblers who can afford it”.

I think W.D.'s attitude about this is the best. He said to me recently: I may have to come to terms with the fact I don't have the desire to make the time investment it would require to be a winning player. This was by far the healthiest recreational player attitude I've heard. So many people fight with themselves — trying to pick between admitting their game has limits (in the skill sense) and telling themselves that this is just for fun and doesn't matter. It's hard to find thinking that is clear, balanced, and honest. What I like about W.D.'s attitude is that he admits he has limitations and realizes that he may not have the time available, due to other more important commitments, to devote to the study.

You see, anyone of above average intelligence can excel at poker. But, the time investment, study and patience are too much for some people. Excuses are easier. The key, however, is to be honest and self-aware about those excuses. If you don't want to invest the time, admit that you are gambling a little bit because you don't have the time. You don't have to oscillate; just settle somewhere in the middle and admit that's where you are.


When I'm faced with the question of “should I play now that I'm too busy with other things to focus on my game?” — as I was the past few weeks — I simply don't play. It's something I thought carefully about over the past few weeks when I would think about the fact that I'd chosen not to play. I saw that I had two choices, given the constraints on my ability to focus adequately: (a) don't play or (b) play for lower stakes, so the losses I would inevitably suffer would be minimal.

I didn't chose (b) because I don't actually believe there are any stakes in the world that are meaningless. As I've said before, I believe only somewhat in the relative value of wealth. $10 may not have much meaning to middle class people, but I know that there are people for whom $10 is a large amount of money. How arrogant would it be for me to throw that money away playing $.25/$.50 limit or $0.10/$0.20 NL/PL, when I could donate it to someone whom I knew really needed it?

I don't deny that I play some for the competition and for the fun (after all, I indeed love the game of poker). However, I can never afford to play anything less than my best game — no matter what the limit. If I play poker and am not playing my best game, I am throwing away money that has a better use, no matter what the stakes. If I must feed that competitive demon at such moments, then it must be done with a game that isn't played for money (even if it makes the game “less real” — more on that later).

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

I have an interested lay-person's understanding of an area of social psychology known as attribution theory. I took a near-minor in Psychology in college (I left off a few courses due to laziness and over-obsession with taking all the Computer Science electives offered), so I don't have that advanced nor complicated understanding of this sub-field. However, social psychology and addiction were the two areas of psychology that interested me most. Now that I play so much poker, I'm glad I took those courses. Some of the basic principles, particularly those related to cognitive bias and attribution theory, can be applied pretty directly to poker without too deep of an understanding. (Indeed, rereading Shoonmaker's Psychology of Poker is helping me see how these social psychology principles apply to poker. He avoids technical terms to make his work accessible to those who haven't taken an introductory course in social psychology. However, if you get a working understanding of the technical terms before reading his book, you can see where he's applying the principles.)

It's actually kind of amazing how quickly and easily you can start to apply these principles to poker. The wikipedia entry that lists some common cognitive biases reads almost like a laundry list of problems we all have and witness when we play poker! I stumbled across the page doing some poker research this past weekend, and I got inspired to make a journal plan. I'm going to go through each of these cognitive biases and consider carefully how I might have each of these biases in my attitudes toward poker. I'll also consider how I can look for these cognitive biases in others to improve my edge against them. I may even be able to pull out some examples from previous posts, and consider them in light of particular cognitive biases.

Of course, by linking to the page, I've already spoiled some of the thunder. Those of you that click through will read the list and the short descriptions and begin to see quickly how they apply to poker easily. Poker is just one of those contrived, confined social settings that let these psychological concepts play out without too much complexity.

To start, I'll focus on the list available on wikipedia, since the definitions seem reasonable and are easily linkable. I hope that you'll find this series useful and educational to consider. I'll probably go slowly, interspersing these over the coming weeks with my regular types of posts, so that this doesn't become the “cognitive theory poker journal”.

And, after all, I don't want to suddenly “anchor” all of my poker thinking to cognitive bias and attribution theory. That might lead to a choice-supportive bias that I've made a good decision to focus so much on this issue. :)

shipitfish: (clueless-donkey by phantompanther)

It was suggested to me not long ago (offline) that the primary reason I post hand details of bad plays where I point out donkey plays is that somehow I can't handled the losses and/or variance. The implication seems to be that someone who says boy, what a donkey play I made must be deeply upset over that loss because the money means too much to them.

Of course, the money means less to rich people, particularly those who play at only lower stakes that are basically financially meaningless and cost less than a nice dinner out. I try to carefully balance the value of money. In poker, you can never focus in the value of the money during the game — down that path leads to tight-weak play. But, you also can't think of it as valueless entertainment dollars either, because in those cases, you can easily excuse your inability to play correctly with the fact that the money “just doesn't matter”.

You also have to be ready, willing, and able to admit that you're a bad player, even if being such only lasted one session or one hand. You've got to be ready to call yourself a “donkey” once in a while. As Thomas Keller wrote the first time the term “donkey” appeared in Card Player magazine:

Donkey is generally perceived as a friendly word, and few people I have run across have taken great offense at being called a donkey — whether it be for making a bad play or accidentally posting right in front of the big blind. Even I have been called a donkey at times for things I have done at the poker table, and I usually have gotten a good chuckle out of it. Lots of professionals will even refer to themselves as donkeys when they make a mistake, saying such things as, “I played that hand like a donkey”, or sometimes they just let out a good heehaw (the sound a donkey makes).

Playfully calling yourself out for a stupid action doesn't necessarily have anything to do with fear of variance or otherwise being unable to handle the losses. I agree that one should avoid playing for stakes where the losses would be too much to handle. However, there is no reason that being honest with oneself about one's game relates to playing above one's head.

I play for stakes where I can take a loss that is meaningful. While I believe somewhat in the relative nature of wealth — I know that the man with a million dollars has trouble proper valuing $100 — I try to keep in mind that even $20 is enough for anyone to be well fed for a day, and therefore it has absolute value that no one's relative wealth can ever obscure. But, since I'm playing for meaningful stakes, it also means I can win amounts each year that are meaningful as well. It's amazing to me to have a hobby that, unlike so many others that just cost (sometimes waste) money, can turn a profit. By keeping a bankroll appropriate to the stakes that I play, if I'm a winning player over the long term, I can survive whatever variance comes my way.

But, I'm careful to keep this concept — bankroll variance and serious losses — separate from my analysis of the game and mistakes in it. Sometimes people will describe a hand where they faced a draw out, and then believe that such a loss is equivalent to one where a terrible play was made that cost them just as much. Money lost as a “donkey” and money lost when playing correctly are deeply different things.

It was tough for me early in my poker career to start picking apart this distinction. One of the reasons it took me so long to figure out that I was abusing semi-bluffing was that I won so often doing it. It's hard to realize how much of a donkey you were when you walk out a winner because you got called every time you were semi-bluffing and happened to get lucky a few times in a row. This principle has an impact the other way, too. If you lose, you have to figure out whether it was your fault or merely bad luck.

One of the key truths of poker is that every player makes mistakes. It's already pretty hard for all but the best players in the world not to do so. Games like poker, where you need lots of conflicting technical information at your fingertips while simultaneously making educated guesses about your opponents' private information, can easily cause you to make awful plays. We all make plenty of them when we play poker. As Phil Ivey said on a recent Learn Poker From the Pros broadcasts: I make mistakes every time I sit down to play poker. If Ivey's sometimes a donk, how can anyone say it's wrong to admit to yourself that you might have been a donk, too?

My game got substantially better when I took “default ownership” for hands. By this, I mean I started assuming that I'd done something wrong, and forced myself to prove that what I'd done was correct. Occasionally, the proof becomes a justification for bad play. However, most of the time, if you force yourself to disprove the hypothesis that you're an (albeit temporary) donkey, you have a much better chance of being honest about your game and improving.

shipitfish: (partly-cloudy-patriot)

I read that Barry Greenstein, in his book, has the following quote from Kierkegaard:

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

It's true that so many times, it's clear to everyone who considers a hand after it is done knows how it should have been played. When we disagree, they are almost always marginal decisions. In the moment, though, things aren't so straight forward and it's hard to tell the marginal decision (that's ok either way) from the one that has a clear path. We have to plod through in those moments and make the best decisions we can. The important thing is learning from those decisions for the next time you live a hand forwards. In a meta-game consideration, it too often becomes obvious after the fact that the game was too tough, or that we weren't in the best state of mind when we played, but in the moment it's hard to realize.

I had wanted to read his book anyway, but seeing this in a review of it made me consider getting to it sooner.

shipitfish: (Default)

In all this discussion in my journal the last 48 hours about poker harming people, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to link to this article. It's not the article itself that interests me for its own sake. I like it because it shows three generational connections, made through poker.

I got to know Ashley Adams (the father writing the introduction and coda to the article) while I lived in Boston. I went to his home a few times for home games. I met Rebbecca, his daughter, only once, briefly. She came home once as we played in Ashley's club room. She rolled her eyes a bit with this oh, they're playing poker again look. I wondered at the time, not having kids myself, about how a hobby like poker interacts in the family structure.

Reading this article, it became clear that as Rebbecca grows up, she's getting some appreciation for who her father through his love for poker — enough so that she's inspired to write about it. Given Ashley's excited way of writing about his daughter's article (and the fact that he emailed every poker buddy he has to let us know the article was up on the site), he obviously feels tremendous pride and goodwill that his daughter is learning about him through his hobby.

This whole story reminds me that — despite some negative sides to poker that we have been debating here in my journal the past few days — poker is a reasonable part of our culture that has positive impacts on people and their relationships. Sure, it's played for money and some people make bad decisions about money and get in trouble due to addiction. But how can we say it was bad for Ashley to teach his daughter to play poker, to use it to connect with her aging grandfather, and now to connect back with her, as he watches her go out into the world?

Poker is a net positive to the world and there is no harm in sharing it with those we love. Some of those we love will have pain from poker, but those people were probably destine for pain in life one way or the other anyway.

shipitfish: (partly-cloudy-patriot)

My post beginning my series for introductory players got two (1, 2) surprising responses. The basic argument is that educating people about poker draws them into a dangerous world of addictive gambling, populated by seedy people, and that such an introduction can ruin people's lives. My commentators indicate that I should consider the unintended consequences. Indeed, they argue that one might have a duty to divert people away from the poker world.

I think the argument is a seductive one, but is flawed. In fact, there are a dozen other things I could make this same argument about, using the same evidence. So many things in life which are acceptable in moderation have the same sorts of addictive qualities as poker.

I have spent a lot of time (my whole career in fact) around computer programmers and computer networking experts. I've known a few who are addicted — truly addicted in the sense my commentators talk about — to programming, or to cracking network security, or to some other sub-genre of the computer 3l33te world. They have let all relationships in collapse. They have left spouses, or spouses have left them, because they couldn't not help but stay in front of the computer for 20 hours straight out of every 30.

Sex can be the same way. Indeed, there is even Sex Addicts Anonymous, just like there is Gamblers Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Of course, many people do engage in sex, gambling, drugs, and alcohol and don't become addicted in the DSM-IV sense. As one commenter points out, most people who do these things, in fact, aren't addicted. But, we still have to draw some distinctions between these activities. Introducing a person to any of them is not necessarily the same type of act. Let's consider in this post some very rough distinctions.

The first distinction sets aside substances that have a proven element of direct physical addiction. That's one class in itself. I would say that likely cocaine, heroin, and nicotine are three common substances to go in this class. The body becomes truly dependent, sometimes after the first introduction of the chemical. Another distinction is the group of substances that are a less physically addictive, but do cause serious changes to body chemistry. Some examples here might be alcohol, marijuana, and maybe sex. This class is different still from activities that, while they may generate some physiological responses, do not interact directly with the body chemistry. Of course, these lines aren't fine, nor are there only three classes, but let's just take a rough cut here for the moment.

Now, I agree in regard to the first class of substances, for sure. I think it's wrong to offer people cocaine and heroin. However, even in this class, is it wrong to tell people about its existence, and that it feels amazing? Probably not. It's just information — data about an activity. That in itself can't be wrong. Indeed, if it were wrong, the course I took toward at my Psychology department in college, The Biology and Psychology of Substance Abuse was chock full of information that was “wrong” in this sense.

Now, consider that middle layer in my classification. Well, I have to say, somewhere in there I stop believing that it is wrong to encourage people to engage in the activity. If a waiter offers me a glass of wine, or a website tells me how to brew my own beer, are they harming me? Would they do better to keep me from harm by not giving such information? That seems ludicrous. Indeed, I had a drinking problem in college and have shied away from alcohol ever since then, but imbibe maybe once a year. My co-workers invite me out for drinks much more often than that. Should they stop offering, just in case I fall into a drinking problem again and ruin my life? Would it be there fault if I did?

And, consider sex as another example. It's the example that analogizes nicely with comments about how seedy the poker world is and the caliber of people who sometimes occupy it. Wandering over to the “Casual Encounters” section of Craig's List, you'll find some really seedy people in the sex world, but does that mean “Craig” is culpable for introducing harm and should stop? And should he discontinue the “Women Seeking Men” section too, just in case? What about the people who wrote Joy of Sex? Are they to be shamed because they boosted their egos by writing the book and thereby introduced some people to seedy underworld of sex addiction?

Maybe some poker-playing friend of mine will have a collapse like is suggested in this comment. Maybe no one will. Maybe I'll go out drinking with my co-workers one night and become a serious alcoholic and ruin my life. Maybe someone who didn't know about Craig's List's “Casual Encounters” section will read this post, find it for the first time, and descend into sex addiction. Maybe his wife will call me up to tell me how he caught HIV, ruined their marriage and is almost dead now. Sure, I would feel awful about it if it happened! I'm a human being who doesn't want to see people suffer. But, it's not fair nor necessary to blame myself for those consequences, and the fellow's wife would be wrong to do so. She'd just be looking for somewhere to hang her pain and picking the wrong place.

Yes, the friends I help learn play poker will probably be losing players. But, that doesn't mean it was wrong to give them information. The epistemology of whether or not generally useful technical information should be made available is a field of study where I have some experience. In fact, I studied with a MacArthur award winner who (more or less) invented the idea that information with a didactic component should always by freely available for all who wish to learn. It was even my job once to educate people about that very issue. So, I would say I'm surely prepped to enter this debate about the ethical correctness of the idea that “information wants to be free”. But, the arguments on the other side seem so ludicrous, I don't know if it is worth it.

Finally, there is some truth that sharing information in a pedagogical way is sometimes about the ego of the teacher. Having studied a large sociological culture built around making information available, I can speak with some experience — there is no denying that hubris and ego drives some of it. But, humans are complex beings. There's a bit of ego in being the teacher, but there's also the joy in sharing something you love — something that, might I remind you, a noted psychologist told me would be helpful to make me feel better about my own obsession with my job and the world that surrounded it.

And it did help me. I met one of my best friends ([livejournal.com profile] nick_marden) hanging around that seedy poker world. I do believe the poker world can be good for others, too, even if, like so many things in life, it might be bad for others.

shipitfish: (clueless-donkey by phantompanther)

My illness broke my posting routine, and I apologize to my readers who had gotten used to very regular posts. I'll strive to get regular posting going again.

I was sick from last Wednesday, missed two days of work at the end of last week, and didn't start feeling better until Saturday morning. But, by Saturday evening, I was ready to play poker again.

Dan and I went to the H Club in NYC. Dan is a relatively new player who came to me about one year ago asking for advice to learn NL HE. His game has improved a lot over the past year, and he is now a reasonable tight-aggressive player. However, I know quite a bit about his game, which was a factor in the hand I'm about to describe.

I bought in for the $500 maximum in the $1/$2 NL HE game. I saw a ton of flops with reasonable multiway hands — I was dealt about a dozen pocket pairs which I took to multiway flops and failed to flop any sets. I took a number of flops with suited connecting cards and other surprise hands, but failed to connect there as well. I rebought for another hundred and but was still struggling to keep my stack at $400.

Dan, meanwhile, was playing very well. He was raising frequently preflop, and was making good choices about raise sizes. It took a $20 (!) preflop raise to get just one caller. Dan was carefully doing that with his big unconnected cards and big pairs. He was using position very well to win pots uncontested, and was properly value-betting his holdings to protect strong but vulnerable holdings. I felt he was really playing well.

It was in this context that the following hand came up. From middle position, Dan raised to $20 after one limper ahead of him. From watching his play and knowing his game, I knew that he had two big unconnected cards (AK, AQ or maybe AJ or KQ), or he had a big pair (JJ or better, maybe TT). I was on the button and it was folded between us.

At this point, I simply decided to call regardless of my holding. The limper looked annoyed enough at the raise, and even if I generated 1-to-2 for him, he'd fold. The blinds were distracted and probably folding. I'd be able to take a flop heads up with position, and really felt I might be able to outplay Dan on the right flop. I was correct about the first part, at least — we saw the flop heads-up with $45 in the pot. (BTW, even though it doesn't matter at all for the telling of the hand, I held Kd 6d. I had no hand/no draw and on ever street Dan was winning by far.)

The flop was As 8s 3s. Dan relatively quickly bet $40. I considered my options of what hand I could represent. I felt very strongly that Dan had an Ace by his mannerism of betting and by the amount. I felt if he was to bet the flop with something else, he'd bet less with non-Ace hands (say, Ks Kh). The question was whether or not he had a big spade to go with the his "red ace". I couldn't know for sure if he was drawing well, so I felt I had to represent a made flush.

The question was: how would Dan think I would play such a hand? Well, I figured it was good I was taking some time to act. I figured if I called automatically, Dan would be inclined to think "draw", not only because quick calls often indicate draws, but also because he knows I've told him that. In other words, he might easily think I'd try to "throw him off" by doing the obvious "weak play" with a draw. I waited a few more seconds, and decided that an immediate raise would be the exact play to look like a pure bluff to him, so I called. The pot was $125 into the turn.

The turn was a blank, a 4h or something like that. Dan thought only briefly and bet $40 again. I read this clearly as Dan backing off. If he really had read me for a spade draw, he'd have bet the pot size again. I really felt strongly at this point that he had AQ or AK and no spade. I decided now was the time to carry through and represent a relatively strong (but not the nut) flush. I raised just $60 more, hoping he would see it as a value raise from a flush against someone I thought had no flush draw. I really expected Dan to reluctantly fold.

He began saying to the dealer, strangely and out of character, just $60 more. $60 more; that's it?. He quickly called. At this moment, I had to reconsider my read. The $60 more? thing was obviously representing a big spade, and at this point I had to really consider it. AQo with Qs was a serious possibility. I pondered and watched Dan as the river fell. I knew if he checked the river, I'd have to bet at least $100 of my depleted chips and hoped he didn't call with his Ace.

Dan saw the river card, glanced back at his stack and said one hundred. I took a peak at the 7s and refocused on Dan as he pulled out a stack of chips. I began to put Dan on that Qs, as the dealer confirmed the count of his bet. After all, why would he bet one third of the pot on the river?

Then came "the glance". Dan's eyes met mine for much less than a second, but I read something there. He had no spade. There was almost no doubt in my mind. He had decided to represent that flush if the spade fell; that's what the out-of-character just $60 more? stuff meant. He was overselling the bluff.

However, I thought I saw something else. I got this distinct feeling that he had read me as well. I looked down at my stack; I had a mere $215 left, which meant a raise would be basically a min-raise. I felt that Dan was telling me something like: I don't think you have a single spade at all and I'm going to call you with this ace. I felt very confident he didn't have spade; not totally sure, but well over 70%. But, when I added to that the likelihood that he'd call anyway with an Ace because he suspected a bluff, I decided that I'd have to fold. For show, I said: Well, Dan, I have a small flush but I had you on the Ks. I can't call.

Later, Dan and I talked in detail about the hand. Dan had decided to represent the flush draw on the turn, but obviously had failed to execute perfectly because of the look on the river. He confirmed that what was really going on is he hadn't realized that $100 was such a large bet (relatively to my stack) on the river, but that he wouldn't have called a river raise. He actually had me on a weak flush draw, not a made flush, so the 7s was, in some sense, as scary for him as it was for me, but thought I could make a good laydown of, say, the naked Ts.

It's not often I try to set up a pure bluff and play someone else's hand. I usually try to do it against players whom I play a lot with and with who I have a long history of talking about poker strategy. I used to feel somewhat safe doing this, but I wonder if this was simply a mistake. Should I be trying to set up plays like this? Am I picking the wrong players; should I instead chose tight-weak players whose game I know well? I figure I eventually have to learn how to make these complicated plays, and who better to try than those whose game I know well and whom I know are working hard to play correctly?

Anyway, I have to say that I think Dan played the hand very well. He suspected that something might be going on. I think my biggest mistake was not raising just a bit more on the turn. Dan confirmed that he would have folded to a raise of even $80 more instead of $60 more. Also, I should have given more consideration to going all-in on the river. I would have bet $215 to win $425, which is almost 2-to-1. I only have to be right one out of three times to make that high variance play profitable.

shipitfish: (partly-cloudy-patriot)

My last post discussed a terribly played hand of NL HE at a local NYC club. As I've mentioned, “bad beats” just don't get to me anymore, and I feel fine as soon as I know my money went in correctly and as a favorite. However, I feel awful when I lose a big stack or pot due to my own terrible mistake (or series of them). That's how I felt all night after playing that pot, and even into the next morning as I commuted to work.

I tried to put it out of my mind. I carried out my normal commuting ritual of listening to recorded books on my portable audio player. And, what did I come upon somewhere in Midtown, but the following quote from the Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell:

My motto in any situation is “It could be worse!” “It could be worse!” is how I meet every setback. Though, nothing all that bad has ever happened to me, every time I've ever had my heart broken, or gotten fired or watched an audience member at one of my book signings have a seizure as I stand at the podium trying not to cry, I remind myself: “It could be worse!” In my self-help universe, when things go wrong, I whisper mantras to myself; mantras like “Andersonville”, or “Texas school book depository”.

Andersonville” is a code-word for “you could be one of the prisoners of war, dying of disease and malnutrition in the worst confederate prison, so just calm down about the movie you wanted to go to being sold out”.

“Texas school book depository” means that having the delivery guy forget the guacamole isn't nearly as bad as being assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald as the blood from your head stains your wife's pink suit.

Though, ever since I went to Salem, I'm keen on “Gallows Hill”. As in, “being stuck in the Boise airport for ten hours, while getting hit on by a divorced man with ‘major financial problems’, on his way to his to his twentieth high school reunion, is irksome but not as dire as swinging by the neck on Salem's Gallows Hill”.

So, if I have gleaned anything useful from reading and day-tripping through the tribulations of the long dead, it's to count my blessings — to try and quit bellyaching — to buck up. Can't you just hear the children's song?

I began to think a lot about how worse it could be. Yes, I know I played the hand that way because my recent legitimate poker losses have left me impatiently looking for a spot to have a big winning session. I probably overplayed my hand because I thought prematurely that this was my moment. I made the classic reading mistake of putting my opponent on the one hand I could beat of many possible hands that fit the betting pattern and tells.

My bankroll sits at near a half of what it was in December, but it is still a full $3,000 more than it was a year ago at this time. I still have enough that I don't need to drop down limits. As Sarah says, “It could be worse!”

As I pondered this, the next track after the quote above started. I was treated to a song by what is probably my favorite band, They Might Be Giants. This wasn't a shuffle accident; I was playing sequentially. TMBG did music for Sarah's audio book. This was They Might Be Giants' rendition of Sarah's “It Could Be Worse!” mantra; their interpretation of the “children's song” she mentioned. (Give a listen.)

So, I'm going to keep those mantras, and this song, in my head at the poker table. I even wrote another stanza of it of my own:

You flopped trips with ten-seven,
And paid off sixes-full.
But, your stack was less than those lost accounts,
in the 80's S&L scandal.

“Gallows Hill”, and “Andersonville”, it could be ...
It could be worse!





My new mantra for bad beats and bad plays: “80's S&L scandal!”!

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