KKing David

Ruminations on poker

Archive for the category “Poker scene”

I’m Not Talking To You

Let’s say two poker players get all pissy with each other.  For purposes of this blog, imagine Player A lost most of his chips to Player B.  Later, Player B loses all of his chips.  Player A, still steamed from losing, mutters to no one in particular something like “he just lost all of MY chips!”

B is also steamed, and tells A “they weren’t your chips anymore; they were mine.  If you weren’t such a bad player, those chips might still be yours, but when I lost them they were in fact my chips.”

So here is my question:  How many times can Player A shout at Player B “I’m not talking to you!” without it being the case that he is, in fact, talking to Player B?


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The Worst Rule in Poker

“I want to see her cards.”  Who knew such a simple sounding request would nearly lead to an all out brawl?

For purposes of this blog, I’ll call the player making this request “Larry.”  We are at the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa casino poker room, my first trip here. I had just flopped a set of deuces on a very wet board (Qc Js 2c).  The other player, who for purposes of this blog I’ll call “Daryl,” (spelled like the actress Daryl Hannah) had a fairly short stack and seemed like she might be on a draw.  On the turn, I bet enough to put her virtually but not fully all-in.  Thankfully, she obliged but putting in her full stack, and after the dealer counted her chips, I owed one more chip to call.  I didn’t do this intentionally; she had a lot of small denomination chips that added up to more than it looked.

This is relevant.  Technically she made the final raise and I called.  According to protocol, I can wait for Daryl to show her hand first, having paid for the privilege of seeing her cards before deciding whether to show mine.  If the river card gives her a flush or straight, I can muck my hand and no one will know what I had.

When the river card is the 4th deuce, the protocol becomes irrelevant.  There is no reason to inflict extra pain on Daryl, so I roll over my pocket 2’s very quickly to claim the pot.  As an added bonus, my four-of-a-kind qualifies for a $250 high hand jackpot that is paid every half hour, and holds up just long enough for me to get paid.

Larry was never involved in this hand, but still demands to see Daryl’s cards.  According to Robert’s Rules of Poker, he has that right.  Rule 5 in the Showdown section says:

5.  Any player who has been dealt in may request to see any hand that has been called, even if the opponent’s hand or the winning hand has been mucked. However, this is a privilege that may be revoked if abused. If a player other than the pot winner asks to see a hand that has been folded, that hand is dead. If the winning player asks to see a losing player’s hand, both hands are live, and the best hand wins.

In poker’s war for information, some players are maniacal about pursuing every possible edge.  Larry turns out to be one of those players, hoping to learn something about Daryl’s play that he can use to his advantage later on.  Unfortunately for him, the dealer had already pulled Daryl’s cards into the middle of the muck pile and we never found out.

But that’s not why the rule exists.  It exists to prevent cheating, particularly in tournament poker.  Sometimes in tournaments, huge imbalances exist between one player’s chip stack and another’s.  Unlike in cash games, the shorter stacked player cannot buy more chips.  If two friends are at the same tournament table, Friend 1 with the larger stack might be tempted to dump a few chips off to Friend 2 with a desperately small stack to help Friend 2’s chances of making it to the prize money or the next payout increase.  The easy way to do this is for Friend 1 to make a large bet, Friend 2 to be the only caller, then Friend 1 mucks his cards and says he was just bluffing.

That’s cheating.  Rule 5 allows any player at the table to ask to see Friend 1’s hand.  Not for information, but to ensure he isn’t cheating by dumping chips to Friend 2.  The language in Rule 5 says “this is a privilege that may be revoked if abused.”  Well, I’m here to tell you that anytime this so-called privilege is invoked for any reason other than suspicion of cheating, that’s an abuse!

In cash games, Rule 5 isn’t needed.  When I grow up and have my own poker room, the house rules won’t include this one for cash games, and for tournaments the player involving the rule will be forced to explicitly state (and convince a floor supervisor) that cheating is suspected.

I’m not the only poker blogger who feels this way.  At Rob’s Vegas Poker Blog (one of the best of all poker blogs!), Rob also calls this “one of the worst rules in poker,” noting that every use of the rule is actually an abuse of it.  Rob describes another abuse of the rule here.  Last summer PokerNews featured an article by Tommy Angelo – one of the game’s greatest thinkers – describes the rule as “bad for poker” as it fails its mission while “encouraging petty behavior.”

The next rule, Rule 6 in the Showdown section, says

If you show cards to an active player during a deal, any player at the table has the right to see those exposed cards. Cards shown during or after a deal to a player not in the pot should be shown to all players when the deal is finished.

This is different.  In shorthand, “show one, show all” is simply an information equalizer.  Rule 6 only applies after a player has voluntarily shown cards to another player.  By contrast, Rule 5 applies to cards that haven’t been shown to anyone, provided that player’s final bet was called by another player.

Rule 6 comes up later when Larry is involved in a hand with the player on Daryl’s immediate left.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Darrell.”  There was at least one other player in the hand too.  According to Larry, while contemplating a large bet Darrell flashed his cards towards Daryl (who had already folded), and she made a comment like “nice cards” or something similar.  Darrell then folded, and Larry asked the dealer to keep Darrell’s cards out of the muck pile so he could see them after the hand was over.  This wasn’t the first time Larry had invoked Rule 6.  He seemed obsessed with information FOMO.

This time, however, was a tipping point.  Darrell denied showing his cards to Daryl.  Daryl denied seeing them and further denied making any comment.  Larry was insistent, and asked the dealer to call for a floor supervisor.  Before you knew it, Larry, Darrell and Daryl were all standing and pointing and yelling and swearing at each other.

It became apparent that Daryl was still seething from the earliest hand, when Larry wanted to see her cards after she lost her entire stack to my quads.

“God strike me down if I said anything about his cards!” she screamed loud enough for half of the room to hear, standing with arms outstretched.

“Don’t tempt Him,” responded Larry.

“I protected my cards properly and you don’t have a right to see them,” protested Darrell.

“I make more money playing poker in one week that you make in a full year,” Larry hurled back at Darrell, who earlier had revealed that he lived in Las Vegas for several years and recently moved back to Florida.

This went on for several minutes.  What started as a war for information nearly proceeded to an all out war between Larry, Darrell and Daryl.

Larry actually seemed to be enjoying himself through this exchange.  Darrell and Daryl were not.  Despite the floor supervisor’s efforts to calm Daryl down, telling her she wasn’t accused of doing anything wrong, she was in full poker room rage, or academically speaking, what might be called an episode of Intermittent Explosive Disorder.  I thought she might need to be physically restrained.

I can imagine Larry telling his friends he had the best time at the casino today, even though he didn’t win any money.

Without Rule 5, this never turns into such a brouhaha.


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The Professor, The Banker and the Suicide King

My last post dealt with the concept of Reciprocality, which refers to differences in how you handle something and how your poker opponents handle the same thing.  The difference in your approach either adds to or takes away from your bottom line (when considered over the very long term).

One aspect of that is Bankroll Reciprocality.  If you partition your money better than your opponents do, you gain another small edge.  You may not see it, but it’s still there.

I was reminded of this last night at a table with two players who appeared very well bankrolled and played with a hyper-aggressive, borderline maniac, fearless style.  The house policy at this private game allows players to top off their stacks up to the biggest stack on the table.  Early on, these players bought more chips several times to keep up with whoever was fortunate enough to build up a deep stack.

In a cash game, this style wins over the long haul by putting other players to frequent decisions for all of their chips… with monster hands, medium strength hands, missed draws and total air.  Their all-in and bluffing frequencies are so high that you have to call with lighter and lighter holdings.  Once I called an all-in river bet by one of them – for purposes of this blog I’ll call him “Gabe” – with JT on a board runout of T85-A-3 to double up through a busted flush draw.  Do I really like putting my whole stack at risk with less than top pair?  The really interesting part of the hand was rewinding back to the pre-flop betting, where Gabe had open-raised in middle position with 7h 3h.  If we have to put hands like 73 suited in his pre-flop raising range, we might as well not even try to develop a range at all.

Eventually they will make big hands and will get paid off more often than the rest of us.  With such deep stacks, those payoffs put them in a position to run all over the table.  Gabe had earlier called a pre-flop raise from the big blind with T2 (the “Doyle Brunson” hand) and saw a runout of K62-T-2 to make a full house and crack my pocket AAs.  Later the other guy playing a similar style woke up with his own AA when I had AK.  Given the high frequency of his having something weaker, I decided to push my AK extra hard and got flattened.

That’s poker.  With their bankroll leverage, every time they make a winning hand, they’ll with take someone’s entire stack or double up what is already a deep stack.  That increased their leverage and other players who aren’t comfortable playing for large pots with draws or medium strength hands start surrendering more and more often.

Michael Craig’s book The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time, tells the story of a billionaire Texas banker, Andy Beal, who went to Las Vegas in the early 2000’s to challenge the top professional poker players.  Beal insisted on heads up matches and repeatedly insisted on raising the stakes. Before long, the pros decided to pool their bankrolls as they realized Beal’s bankroll edge offset part of their poker skill edge.  He could force them into tough decision after tough decision, and with a run of good cards push we would present an existential threat to each of the pros’ personal bankroll.

It’s a fascinating story, well researched and written.  The pros, led by Doyle Brunson, Howard (the “Professor”) Lederer, Chip Reese, Ted Forrest, Jennifer Harmon, Todd Brunson, Chau Giang and others, referred to themselves as The Corporation.  Beal’s bankroll edge forced the top poker players in Las Vegas, each accustomed to operating as a lone wolf, to pool their money and acknowledge that some of them performed more poorly against Beal than others did.

The real lesson is that deep pockets matter, especially when combined with a reasonable amount of skill (which Beal worked hard at developing in between his battles with The Corporation) and fearless aggression.  This concept plays out at all levels, and the power of the deep pockets should never be underestimated.

Bankroll Reciprocality.


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Water is Good for You, Even if You Don’t Know Why

While drinking a beer and talking poker with a friend, the conversation turned to various aspect of “being a poker player” in terms of things that we do away from the tables.  It’s great to talk through specific hands or handling specific situations that come up often during the games, but this was different as we stepped back discussed topics that don’t start with “My hole cards were…” or “I bet and then she…”, such as:

  • why we play
  • game selection and seat selection
  • bankroll management and buy-in amounts
  • emotional stability
  • diet and exercise
  • quitting

For purposes of this blog, I’ll refer to the aforementioned conversation as the “Beer Meeting.”

This brought to mind Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker, the best book I have read about being a poker player and thinking about and approaching the game like a pro.  Tommy introduces the concept of “reciprocality,” which he describes as “any difference between you and your opponents that affects your bottom line.  Reciprocality says that when you and your opponents would do the same thing in a given situation, no money moves, and when you do something different, it does.”  An entire article on his website is devoted to the topic of reciprocality.

Bankroll Reciprocality – if you partition your money better than your opponents do, you gain another small edge.  You may not see it, but it’s still there.  On the subject of bankroll, I found this helpful article by Jonathan Little (and other excellent strategy content).  While the article focuses on funding an online poker account, the principles apply to all poker environments.

Quitting Reciprocality – in tournaments there is no way to be better at quitting than your opponents.  The decision to quit is made for you, usually rather abruptly.  In cash games, however, Tommy says “there are many ways to outquit your opponents.  If you consistently quit before your skills are dulled when you get tired, bored, irritated or tilted, and your opponents play on despite sub-optimal conditions, money will move in your direction over the long haul.

Tilt Reciprocality – the opposite of tilt is emotional stability, a much more benign term used at the Beer Meeting.  Tilt reciprocality is the difference between your tilt and others’ tilt.  Whoever tilts more often, stays tilted longer, and tilts the hardest loses; whoever tilts less or recovers fasters gains a reciprocal advantage.

Betting Reciprocality – most players fold their worst garbage hands, so no reciprocal advantage is gained or lost.  But approaches to checking, calling, betting, raising and folding vary widely.  The differences in these actions creates betting reciprocality.  Simply stated, consistently taking actions that result in the highest Expected Value (EV) is the way to gain a betting reciprocal advantage over players who pursue lower EV betting lines.  Each hand or situation that you would play differently than your opponent would results in a reciprocal advantage or disadvantage.

Position Reciprocality – part of what I love about Tommy’s writing is his ability to laser in on the very essence of a complex topic.  Either you are last to act, or you are not!  The reciprocal advantage goes to the player who acts last most often or leverages their favorable position most effectively.  This quote is a gem:  “Acting last is like taking a drink of water.  We don’t have to understand why it’s good for us to know that it is.  And the benefits are unaffected by our understanding of them.”

Shut up already!  I’m perfectly aware that this post extolling the benefits of drinking water was inspired by a Beer Meeting.

But seriously, if you’ll stop snickering for a moment, most of the things we discussed at the Beer Meeting suggest ways to improve the odds of success at the poker table that don’t require an understanding of how they work.  Randomly picking a good game or seat is profitable.  Playing within your bankroll is profitable.  Emotional stability is profitable.  A healthy diet accompanied by regular exercise is profitable.  And yes, drinking water instead of beer is profitable.

Information Reciprocality – in a game of incomplete information, getting more information from your opponents than you give them creates a reciprocal advantage.  This is another reason to shut up already, at least with regard to your hands that aren’t required to be shown and your thoughts that aren’t required to be explained.

The concept of reciprocality applies to anything else we might do differently from the other players at the table that creates an edge.  Study or sleep habits, meditation, exercise, larger bets and disciplined folds all are ways to improve our edge.  I suppose even a Beer Meeting to bring awareness to the connection between what we do away from the table and our long-term results can create a reciprocal edge.

And if that’s true, a Water Meeting might be even better!


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Winning by Leading

You want to win more often than you lose, right?

In team sports, two teams compete head-to-head.  When each contest starts, the score is tied, 0-0.  The scoreboard doesn’t confer any advantage to one team or the other.  Whether it is football, basketball, baseball, hockey or soccer, the winning team is the one with the most points, runs or goals at the end of the game.

What matters is the final score.  One team can be losing throughout the game, only to pull ahead on the final play.  Or the score can remain tied for most of the contest until one team scores to take a late lead.  Or a team can be dominated early, only to have momentum shift in their favor for a come-from-behind win.  Or the lead can shift back and forth multiple times.  Or a team can score first, extend their lead, and never be threatened.  Under every scenario, the winner is whoever has the lead at the end of the game.  It seems silly to have to say that, doesn’t it?

Yet in every sport, the team that scores first ends up winning a majority of the time.  At any time during the game, the team in the lead is most likely to win.

In baseball, hockey and soccer, the team scoring the first run or goal will win about 2/3 of the time.  In football, the team scoring first will win more than 60% of the time.  In basketball, with NBA teams averaging 100 or more possessions per game, the edge is not as great.  The first team to score wins approximately 54% of all games.

Having an early lead doesn’t guarantee victory, but it improves your chances.

In Texas Holdem poker, some of the dynamics are fundamentally different from team sports.  You aren’t a team.  It isn’t a head-to-head competition.  You can opt-out, by folding.  Yet we can still think of each hand of poker like a team sports contest.

Here is the fundamental rule:  The best starting hand is more likely to be the best hand at showdown.

I know, call me Captain Obvious, but bear with me just a bit.

One of the biggest flaws of poker players is playing too many hands.  This post started with a simple question:  You want to win more often than you lose, right?

Before the cards are dealt, the score is tied.  Are the conditions favorable?  Sports teams prefer to play at home.  If professional sports teams played all of their games at home, they would win 5-10% more games.  In poker, the equivalent of the home field advantage is having good position (button or cutoff seat), plus a deep chip stack, winning image and calm emotional state.  Are you giving yourself the poker equivalent of home field advantage?

After the cards are dealt, the score is no longer tied.  Although you can’t look at a scoreboard to see who has the best cards, somebody is in the lead.  Everybody’s betting actions provide us with clues.  If you have the best hand pre-flop, this is the equivalent of scoring first in a team sport.  It doesn’t guarantee victory, but does make you the favorite.  If you have the best hand plus home field advantage (good position, deep stack, winning image, calm emotional state), you are an even bigger favorite.

The amazing thing here is that in each hand of poker, you can opt-in by betting, raising or calling, or you can opt-out by folding.  Professional sports teams don’t have the luxury of opting out when the other team has home field advantage and scores first.  You do.  So why in the world do so many poker players voluntarily put themselves at a probabilistic disadvantage by opting in with hands that are already losing?  Jeez, another hand will start in just a minute or two.

There are 169 possible combinations of two cards.  We can rank them in order of their probability of winning against a full table of opponents.  AA will rank highest; before the flop, this is the nuts.  Next is KK.  There are plenty of poker equity calculators that will show the projected win percentage of each hand vs. any number of unknown hands.

What do you have?  Is it likely to be the best hand at this point – before the flop – in the contest?  Possibly?  Unlikely, but with a reasonable chance of improvement?  Never?  Since poker is a multi-player contest, winning more than anyone else might still be less than 50% of the time.

For example, suppose you are dealt Kh Jh.  King-jack suited is a good hand.  It ranks in the top 7% of all hands.  Out of 169 possible combinations, my Poker Cruncher app ranks it as #15 in strength.  It is possible that you have the best hand at the table.  Kh Jh is projected to win 46% of the time against two random hands, while each random hand is projected to win 27% of the time.  Even though you probably have the lead, the multi-player aspect of poker forces you to acknowledge that most of the time, another player will win the pot.

Limp / call range

But the other players don’t have random hands.  Let’s take this a step further.  Suppose one other player limps in from middle position, you raise with Kh Jh in the cutoff seat, the big blind calls and the limper also calls.  You are 3-handed going to the flop, but now you can eliminate many of the 169 combinations from each villain’s range.  You can eliminate the strongest hands, with which they would raise instead of calling.  And you can eliminate the weakest hands, which they would simply fold.

For this example, let’s assume the limper would have raised rather than limped with all 14 hands that rank stronger than Kh Jh.  These are:  AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, 99, 88, AKs, AQs, AJs, ATs, KQs, AKo, AQo.  We’ll eliminate those from his or her range.  Also let’s assume he or she would fold the weakest 50% of all hands, instead of limping or in response to our raise.  We’ll eliminate those too.

BB call range

The big blind was responding to our raise.  We’ll assume that he or she would re-raise only with a top 10 hand:  AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, 99, AKs, AQs, AJs, AKo.  Since we only got called, we can eliminate these.  We’ll also assume the big blind folds the weakest 60% of all hands to our raise.  We’ll eliminate those too.

Now we can recalculate our equity.  Kh Jh is projected to win 41% of the time, vs. 28% for the limp / call hand in middle position and 31% for the big blind.  You are still the favorite, just less so than against two completely random hands.

If your raise was a little bit larger, maybe the big blind would fold and the limper would fold the weakest 60% rather than 50%.  Now you would be heads up, and project to win 58% of the time at showdown (in all cases, these win rates assume there is no further betting), switching the outcome from ‘lose most of the time’ to ‘win most of the time.’  See how powerful raising is?

Suppose, instead, that you had made the same raise with Th 8h and gotten the same two calls.  Now you would be projected to win 30% of the time. vs. 33% for the limp / caller and 37% for the big blind.  Instead of starting with the lead, you’ve opted in despite being an underdog, and done so via a raise.  Why would you want to do that?  Have you forgotten the original question:  You want to win more often than you lose, right?

It is possible to win a pot without having the best hand.  There is even a technical term for this:  bluffing.  Sports teams don’t have this weapon.  Imagine a Little League baseball team yelling in a menacing tone at the other team, “we are beating y’all by more than 10 runs, so you should quit and go home under the mercy rule!” even though the other team is actually ahead by one or two runs.  That would never work.  I’ll return to bluffing in a later post.

There are other reasons you might want to opt-in with starting cards that won’t enjoy the early lead.  This involves pot odds and implied odds.  I’ll return to this in a later post as well.

For now, if you want to win more often than you lose (right?), the easiest place to start is by playing hands that are more likely to be in the lead already and raise enough to shrink the number of remaining villains.  Before you starting bluffing or calculating pot odds and implied odds, just practice playing poker with the lead.  Develop the habit of opting in with the lead and opting out whenever another player is more likely to have the lead.  Opting out eliminates your disadvantage, with no penalty.

Imagine a professional sports coach being able to withdraw from a game after the other team scores first with no penalty, no impact on the team’s win/loss record.  The coach would simply say he’s decided to reset the scoreboard and start over.  In team sports, that would never work.  In poker, you have that option every hand.


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“F**k Sklansky”

There’s going to be a lot of poker math here.  If you don’t like the math, this post may not be for you.  I’ve heard it said that math is only for bad poker players.  Maybe that’s me… here goes.

In several recent posts, I’ve referred to David Sklansky’s classic book, The Theory of Poker.  One post was about Sklansky’s definition of mistakes, as imbedded in his The Fundamental Theorem of Poker:

Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.

Sklansky also was the first (or among the first) poker scholars to fully develop and explain the math side of no limit Texas Hold’em.  Other prior posts included discussions about “Skansky Bucks,” (including one here and another one here) a theoretical calculation of the expected value (EV) of all-in bets or calls that occur prior to the river card.

Last night one of my regular blog readers was at the game.  For purposes of this post, I’ll call him “Rob” since that’s what I called him last month after he hit a 3-outer on the river to chop a large pot, after he thought he was drawing completely dead.  Rob mentioned Sklansky, except when he pronounces the author’s name it sounds more like Sklinsky.

After awhile, Rob raised to five BBs from under-the-gun (UTG), an action that conveys considerable strength.  I called with Ad 9d and there was one other caller.

Flop (16 BBs):  Jd 9c 7d.  I have middle pair with a nut flush draw.  I like it!  Rob leads out for 8 BBs.  Since I’m not going anywhere, I might as well apply some pressure, so I raise to 28 BBs.  The other player folds and Rob calls without very much hesitation.  The strongly suggests to me that he has either top set (JJJ), an overpair (AA-QQ) or AJ.  There are three combinations of JJ and AA, six combos of KK and QQ, and nine combos of AJ.  Against that range, my equity is 45.1%, although I discount the set of JJJ’s as he would be more likely to re-raise on such a wet board.

Turn (72 BBs):  8c.  This doesn’t help my hand but is an interesting card as it creates a second flush draw (which helps Rob if he has exactly Ac Jc) and also means any T now has a straight.  He checks.  I can represent a very strong hand here, which could be a flopped straight with T8, or a flopped set of 777’s or 999’s.  I have 65 BBs left and his stack is approximately equal to mine.  I shove all-in, first of all hoping he will fold if he has KK or QQ (which seems most likely) or praying to hit one of my outs if called.

If his range is exactly KK-QQ here, my equity is now 32.3%.  Against KK, any T would create a straight on the board and we would chop the pot, although with QQ that would simply give him a higher straight.  If he has the Kd or Qd, that takes away one of my flush outs.  This is virtually a break-even proposition.  If he calls, I’ll win a pot of 202 BBs 32.3% of the time, for an expected final stack of 65 BBs — the same as I would have by simply surrendering.  If he folds with any non-zero frequency, the EV of shoving is even higher.

Rob tanks for quite awhile, appearing to change his mind multiple times.  He states that it seems like I flopped a set of 777’s.  I try not to give off any tells.  Inside my mind is screaming, please fold please fold please fold, as I know more than 2/3 of the time I’ll go bust if he calls.  Eventually, Rob calls.  The river is the 2d, however, giving me the nuts.  He showed QQ, including the Qd.  Against his exact hand, my equity is 29.5%, and I would need to expect him to fold 8% of the time for this to be a break-even play.

Put me down for 202 BBs after this hand, but only 60 BBs in Sklansky Bucks.

A few minutes later, Rob asks me if his call was a mistake.  In the Sklansky definition of mistake, it would be a mistake if he would not have called knowing my exact cards.  He says he definitely would call in that situation, a flush draw was what he was hoping I had (I’m not sure he considered that any A or 9 was also an out for me, but those extra outs don’t make his call a mistake; he was ahead).  We agree that he played it right, made a good call, and just got drawn out on.

“Well, f**k Sklansky!” he says, as a way of ending the discussion, and the whole table has a good laugh.

Much later I have two more all-in hands.

In the first, I raised from UTG with JJ and got two callers.  On a flop of T22 I felt pretty good and made a continuation bet. The player to my immediate left, who for purposes of this blog I’ll call “John” calls again.  He can have any Tx or most pocket pairs below T and still make this call.  I’ve played with John many times and he calls both pre- and post-flop bets with a wide range, and he has position on me.  If I’m C-betting with AK or AQ, he can take this pot away on many turn cards and may have the best hand.

Turn (43 BBs):  9.  He only has about 29 BBs remaining in his stack and I have him well covered.  I decided to go ahead and bet enough to put him all-in.  He might call with a weak pocket pair.  John does call, and flips over Qc 2c, and his trip twos wins.  Ugh!  That’s John, however, and his calling a pre-flop raise from UTG+1 seat with a hand like this doesn’t really surprise me.  At the time the chips went all-in, I had two outs and my equity was 4.55%.  I lost the pot, but I can nevertheless assign nine Sklansky Bucks to my account.

Later still, I’m on the button and post a live straddle.  John is the small blind and raise to 3x the straddle.  The next player, who for purposes of this blog I’ll call “Brooklyn Mike,” calls and everyone else folds to me.  I look down at QQ and decided to raise to 10x the straddle (which equals 25 BBs).  John shoves all-in for 65 BBs with little hesitation, then Brooklyn Mike also shoves for 75 BBs.  WTF?

I peek at my queens again, and they seem to be shriveling up right before my eyes.  Calling will cost 40 more BBs, with 165 already in the pot.  I know John can be shoving with a wider range than most players, and also know that he knows that I can be 3-betting from the button straddle with a wide enough range that I would fold part of that range to a shove.  I call.

Neither John nor Brooklyn Mike turns over his cards right away, so I flip mine over first.  The body language instantly tells me that I’m ahead.  After a 9-high flop, John tables AQo.  After a low turn card, John pats the table next to me and says nice hand.  As he stands and adjusts his jacket to leave, the dealer delivers an A on the river.

Don’t hate the players (or the dealer), just hate the game.  John scoops up a huge pot, and I win a small side pot of 20 BBs.

Pre-flop, when all the chips went in, I was a 56.8% favorite in a pot of 205 BBs, so I “earned” 116 Sklansky Bucks in this hand, while only collecting the 20 BBs in the side pot.

The three hands above were my only all-ins of the evening.  In these hands, my Sklansky Bucks were (60 + 9 + 116) = 185.  My actual result was (202 + 0 + 20) = 222 (less about 5 BBs worth of rake and tips) = net of 217 BBs.  My actual results exceeded my Sklansky Bucks by about 32 BBs, and I went home with a very slightly better than break-even night.  Notice how in just three hands the actual results start to converge with the Sklansky.  If poker math and Sklansky Bucks calculations are valid concepts and accurately done, we should expect a convergence over the long run.  Short-term variance turns into long-term fairness.

Except for one thing… recency bias.  We’re all human, and our tendency is to remember the most recent hand more vividly than any others.  That’s where I lost a very large pot to John when he got lucky on the river.  That’s the memory I carried home.

With all the affection I can muster, “F**k Sklansky!”


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We All Make Mistakes

“We all make mistakes – especially at home.”

I found these words at the Daily Stoic, in an article about Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher who became Emperor of Rome from 161-180, then broke with tradition in selecting his incapable son as his successor rather than a proven leader.

Ironic, isn’t it?

It was Marcus Aurelius who said this:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.”

Marcus taught us to approach our fellow humans as kinsmen –  think of everybody as a brother, sister, cousin, etc. – to be loved and not hated, despite the flaws of being busybodies, arrogant, deceitful, envious, or unsocial.  His point is that people are flawed, flaws are part and parcel of the human condition, thus we should expend extra effort to condition ourselves not to overreact.

Poker is a competitive game involving incomplete information.  Even in games like chess where nothing is hidden, there will be mistakes.  In poker, less information leads to more mistakes.  The same is true in many other activities – investing, relationships, negotiating, weather forecasting…

We all make mistakes.  The Stoics acknowledged that, and developed their school of philosophy around forgiveness – of themselves and of others.  We cannot control others in a manner that prevents mistakes, bad attitudes, negative emotions, poor judgment or devious conduct.  We cannot expect to conduct ourselves to be mistake-free.  The Stoics reasoned that we must work at controlling how we react when these inevitable things happen all around us.  Otherwise, every one of our days is surely to be ruined.

Two millennia later, Marcus Aurelius’ words ring as true as ever.

I’m re-reading The Mental Game of Poker, by Jared Tendler, which is an excellent book.  Tendler offers strategies for letting go of mistakes – whether made by yourself or other players who end up winning despite their errors – that put us on tilt, which further blocks the brain from making correct decisions.  Among other strategies, Tendler advocates writing as a tool for working through aspect of your “mental game.”  Here I am.

I have made many mistakes.  I continue to make mistakes.  I will make many more mistakes.  Poker mistakes cost me money.  Other mistakes cost me in other ways.  I own my mistakes, and they are the experiences from which I can learn the most.  I hope I can learn, and also forgive.


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Molly’s Game

In case you haven’t been paying attention, a new poker movie is out:  Molly’s Game.  This is probably the most significant and best poker movie since Rounders.

I saw it over the weekend, after reading the memoir by the same name earlier in the week.

Based on a true story, Molly’s Game chronicles the exploits of Molly Bloom, older sister of world champion moguls skier Jeremy Bloom and herself once a member of the U.S. national ski team, through her rise, fall, rise again and fall again in creating the world’s highest stakes and most exclusive private poker games.

It isn’t necessary to have read the book first, but I’m glad I did.  Some of the characters in the movie – most notably Tobey Maguire – are Hollywood A-listers whose real identities are masked in the movie, even though the book names all of the names.

I highly recommend Molly’s Game to all my poker playing friends.  It’s a compelling story, credibly presented.  If you’re expecting the movie to be all and only about poker, you might be disappointed.  It’s about Molly Bloom (skillfully portrayed by Jessica Chastain) but there are plenty of poker scenes and other scenes about the allure and pitfalls of the game to qualify Molly’s Game as an excellent poker movie that should be watched and re-watched for a very long time.

I’m not doing a full movie review, so here are links to a review of the movie at Rob’s Vegas Poker Blog and an interview of the movie’s poker consultant by Robbie Strazinski at Card Player Lifestyle.  And the official movie trailer:


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Poker Goals for 2018

Have you set any poker goals for 2018?  If so, leave them in the comments box below.

Here are mine:

  • Win more
  • Tilt less
  • Quit playing online
  • Study persistently
  • Move up
  • Write pithier blog posts

At first glance, these seem pretty obvious, and also lacking in specificity.  Kind of like “lose weight” and “be nicer.”  Then again, almost everyone could stand to be nicer, and quite many should lose weight.

At least it’s a start.  I’ll try to elaborate, as if elaboration equals causation, propelling me towards these goals like a SpaceX rocket crossing the sky, generating wondrous admiration from those who know it’s a SpaceX rocket and frightened stares from gullible onlookers who rush to their favorite conspiracy theory laden websites to learn about this latest UFO.

Win more –> in 2017, I won at poker at an average rate of approximately 11 big blinds per hour.  For 2018, let’s up this to 13 big blinds per hour, almost a 20% increase.  There.  Now we have a goal that has a finite time frame (2018) and is easily measured as long as I keep good records.  Ever since I started my adult working life as a staff auditor with a huge CPA firm, I’ve been decent enough at keeping records.  They explained the Golden Rule of Accounting:  “If your debits don’t equal your credits, your ass sets in jail.”  It’s good to know this.

Tilt less –> I’m not sure how to measure this one, and if I achieve the first goal, who cares anyway?  I guess I’ll have to think about it some more and get back to you later… I do know this:  Tilt is vicious.  Sometimes you are the boiling frog.  In this parable, the frog placed in tepid water that is slowly brought to a boil doesn’t perceive the danger and gets cooked to death.  At the poker table, sometimes the greatest threats to emotional stability arise so gradually that you are unwilling or unable to act until it is too late.  Everything is fine, a series of events, each individually non-tilting, occur one after the other like a broken icicles, dislodged pebbles, a crack in a shelf of ice under shallow snow, and a quick wind gust that join forces to push small, then larger volumes of rumbling snow that by the time it’s recognizable as an avalanche your patience and discipline is turned upside down and sideways until, like the skier, or the boiling frog, you are dead without even knowing you were dying.

Other times, tilt is swift and sudden, as when Narcissus arrives, shows the bluff, and makes a point of rubbing salt in the wound.  Or Nemesis arrives, and soon makes a horrible snap-call only to be saved by a one- or two-outer on the river to join your chips onto his stack.

Quit playing online –> This should be easy, as 2017 ended poorly with respect to my online poker account.  Poorly as in poor, as in no money left in the account.  I don’t like re-loading, which feels like putting a wad of money into a slingshot and flinging it into a black hole from whence it will never return.  It’s ironic, actually, that I feel this way about online poker, as 2017 was my most profitable year in at least five years.  I made no deposits, but did withdraw a 4-figure sum.  It was all downhill after that (queue avalanche analogy again), so you might say I reached a good stopping point.

Now I’m working on a strategy of tricking myself into believing this is good news, a benefit of sorts, perhaps like a colon cleansing. I feel lighter already, free of the burden of constant activity in the large intestine of online poker with its meandering path designed to turn whatever it receives into a pile of shit.  Now that I’m clean, I must permanently improve my diet.  Perhaps the time not spent in the micro-stakes bowels of Ignition Poker can be redirected into…

Study persistently –> Sure, I’ll study poker for an hour every day, just like I go to the gym and work out for an hour every day.  Except I don’t.  Historically, I don’t approach these with the persistency that defines the best habits.  I want to.  I should.  Laying in bed in the mornings, awake but enjoying the warmth  of the covers, I have amazing resolve and self-control over the rest of my day.  My intentions are good.  Until I have to get up and pee, that is, and it all goes downhill after that.

Yogi Bhajan was a Pakistani born spiritual leader and entrepreneur who introduced “yoga of awareness” in the U.S. and became the spiritual director of the 3HO Foundation.  One of the yogi’s most famous quotations is:  “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.”

Following that train of spiritual thought, I should find someone to let me teach them how to become a better poker player.  [Hint, hint, volunteers please get in touch, just don’t call me Yogi.]  In the process of organizing and delivering a poker curriculum, I should expect to reap as many benefits as my student(s).  Which means that out of self-interest, I should be willing to offer poker coaching at very little charge.  Can greater persistency in my own study come from teaching?

Move up –> Molly’s Game never called, and I would have disappointed her anyway.  In 2017, I played almost exclusively small stakes, no limit Texas hold’em, at levels ranging from blinds of $1/1 to $2/5, in these proportions:

  • Blinds of $1/1 — 28%
  • Blinds of $1/2 — 33%
  • Blinds of $1/3 — 6%
  • Blinds of $2/5 — 33%

On a weighted average basis, that would be blinds of $1.33/2.78, give or take a penny.  In part, this reflects the fact that I live in a city with no casinos, so most of my action is in private home or house games, including some very friendly games I frequent regularly.  In those games, the stakes tend to be lower, whereas there is much more action available at higher stakes on trips to casinos in Maryland, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Florida, and elsewhere.  Moving up will require venturing into more hostile territory in my local scene, and playing at the grownup tables when I travel.  Perhaps a reasonable goal for 2018 would be weighted average big blinds of $4.00 by year’s end.

Write pithier blog posts –> Y’all be the judge.


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David and Goliath

“The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

This quote comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful book, David and Goliath, which I just finished re-reading.  I posted it on Facebook; one of my friends commented “poker betting philosophy.”

Upon reading the quote again, yes, it definitely applies to poker.

The Facebook post was a follow-on to an earlier post of another quote from David and Goliath:  “When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters – first and foremost – how they behave.”

Reading this “principle of legitimacy” on a fall Sunday afternoon brought to mind the ongoing civil disobedience of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem as a symbolic protest against racial injustice perpetrated by some law enforcement organizations.  It’s broader now, but that’s how it started.  POTUS and some team owners have attempted to force these football players to behave (i.e., stand during the anthem), even while their own behavior fails to create the necessary legitimacy.  Consequently (and predictably if you follow Gladwell’s reasoning), the number of NFL players protesting has increased.

Gladwell raises this concept in chapters about the decades-long conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, law enforcement strategies in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, pockets of French resistance to the Nazis during WWII, and the U.S. civil rights movement.

To be clear, poker is by far the least of our worries when considering the relationship between force and legitimacy.

In 1969, two RAND Corporation economists wrote a report on dealing with insurgencies.  It was based on a fundamental, yet fatally flawed assumption, “that the population, as individuals or group, behaves ‘rationally,’ that it calculates costs and benefits to the extent that they can be related to different courses of action, and makes choices accordingly… Consequently, influencing popular behavior requires neither sympathy nor mysticism, but rather a better understanding of what costs and benefits the individual or group is concerned with, and how they are calculated.”

Sure, just treat disobedient Irish Catholics, Brownsville hoodlums, French villagers, civil rights activists and pro football players like a math problem.  Make the cost of their insurgent behavior greater than the benefits, via use of excessive force, and they will stop.  Doesn’t everybody pencil out a few economic cost-benefit equations before starting a riot?

Uh… no.

There is a lot to learn here.

Back to poker.  Next time you are bluffing, ask yourself if you have established the legitimacy that leads to submission rather than defiance.  If your bluffs aren’t working, it might be more than just a math problem.


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