A Poker Short Story: Reasonable Doubt

“Most of the other performers tried to put themselves across, rather than the song, but I didn’t care about doing that. With me, it was about putting the song across.”
–Bob Dylan
I don’t have much to say about poker theory this week, so I thought it was about time I tried something different here. I’ve been wanting to try some “real” writing for a while now, but the time just didn’t seem right. But tonight I’m feeling a little inspired, so I thought I’d give this short story thing a shot. I’m writing this as I go, without an outline or editing, so I hope my loyal readers will cut me some slack.
Gambling had been good to Gordon. He’d been beating the game for years now, using the small mistakes of less disciplined gamblers to build a comfortable life for himself. As he stepped out of his sportscar, he pictured it as a composition of the thousand glimmers of hope that had paid for the vehicle. The glimmers had turned into disappointment for his opponents, and that collective disappointment drove him around wherever he wanted to go.
Whenever the cards weren’t going Gordon’s way, he thought of all the things that the game had given him. The car, the house, and probably his family. He’d failed at several attempts to fit in with the rest of the businessmen, unable to accept a monotonous lifestyle where punching the clock was more important than doing your job well. Before he started playing poker, he’d never thought himself as good at anything.
He’d had bad runs before, but none like this. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d walked out a winner, and had stopped keeping records several weeks ago. In his entire poker career, he’d taken pride at writing down the results after each session, writing the wins in one column and the losses in another. Adding another number in the win column always made him smile, though he tried to remind himself that individual sessions don’t matter in the long run. This reminder came a lot more easily lately, and he’d taken to scribbling his losses on a napkin and throwing them in his folder so he wouldn’t have to look at the spreadsheet. As frustrated as he was, he still couldn’t bear to let his play go unrecorded, believing that soon he’d book enough wins to go back to the spreadsheet.
With every step he took towards the poker room, the doubt in his stomach grew more concentrated, and he tried to ease it by reminding himself of the countless victories he’d had in the room. He surveyed his territory, watching the eyes of the regulars light up as he approached the table. Everybody knew he was running bad, except for the new guys, who thought Gordon was a donator. To anybody who’d never played with him before the last few months, Gordon was another rich guy who came to blow off some steam and a few hundred bucks. The thinly veiled disrespect in their eyes bothered him more than losing.
“Good to see ya Gordo!”, said the floorman with a smirk. “I saved you a seat!” Gordon knew that the floormen hated all the pros, since they were forced to watch the pros make 10 times their salary night after night. Money won is twice as sweet as money earned, as the saying goes, and watching somebody win 10 times as much as you earn is therefore 20 times the bitterness.
“Thanks Joe,” mumbled Gordon as he flipped him a dollar chip.
“Better luck tonight!” said the floorman as he turned to walk away. It didn’t bother Gordon, because he was already taking stock of the eyes of his opponents. Hope, anger, and frustration steamed from his opponents eyes as the chips flew into the pot, and the doubt in his stomach rose to his throat. It was a good game.
Thanks for reading. Part 2 next time…

Lessons learned from a garbage hand

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
–Alan Kay
First off, a big thanks for all the comments on my last post. Y’all make this blogging thing worthwhile.
Second, thanks to Iggy for setting up the latest blogger tourney at Stars. I think I came in somewhere around 80th, getting caught stealing and having my top pair get outkicked by the BB. At least my man Monk made a good showing, finishing 14th to sneak into the money. I was happy to see the bloggers remain undefeated, as MtDewVirus edged out ToddCommish to defeat a mighty group effort from the readers.
Good luck to the blogfather, whose first week as a poker pro begins next week. I can’t wait to read about it, and I’m expecting great things from Iggy nation. I had the pleasure of sweating him in the PartyPoker million yesterday, and watched him steal pots like a fox and make big laydowns like a farmer. The reason that good tournament players can consistently finish near the top is because of their ability to steal when they aren’t getting cards. Yesterday Iggy’s steal to get-caught ratio was something like 15:1, allowing him to hang around for 70th place in the field of 1700+. It was a pleasure to watch.
As for my own play, I had another hot week at $10-20, and although my play was limited, my win rate wasn’t. Poker seems so easy when you’re getting the cards– I find myself wondering if the game can really be this easy to beat– and then I remember the cold streaks, when I wonder if I’m good enough to beat any poker game. Lately the cards have been very kind, which means I’ve been catching my draws much more often than I’m being drawn out on. Maybe I should offer some sort of tithe to the Poker Gods to keep this run going. Or perhaps a check made out to Mr. Moneymaker and Mike Sexton would be good enough.
Any two cards can win?
This week, I’ve done my best to play every single hand as well as I can, and extract the most value from every card I’m dealt. The middle limit games are comfortable to me now, and a lot more enjoyable– I no longer spend most of my time calculating implied odds before the flop as I did in the low limit no-fold-em games. The middle limits are about playing the players, and the cards become far less important. Since a raise in early position or middle position often gets you heads up with the big blind, you usually only have to outplay a single player to win the pot.
In a battle against only a single opponent, you really can win with any two cards, as the “third level” of poker thinking comes into play– it’s much more important what your opponent thinks you hold than the actual two cards you hold. If you are able to use your table image and figure out how your opponents perceive you, you can literally win with any two cards.
The above paragraph helps explain how I ended up losing 5 big bets with 64o. At the time, the hand seemed insignificant, just another hand of many (although it was the only time I can remember voluntarily putting money in the pot with 64o). But looking back, this hand taught me a valuable lesson.
A wild player in late position was opening the pot with a raise every time the players ahead of him had folded. I hadn’t had any cards in a while, and found 64o in the BB, and decided that it was time to put an end to this reckless blind stealing. I was getting 3:1 to call his preflop raise, and I was positive that he would pay me off if I outflopped him. So I called, and the flop came 8 6 2 with two hearts. I checkraised him on the flop, believing my second pair was good, although it was possible he had the 8. The turn was the 4 of spades, giving me a weak two pair but a powerhouse against this player. I bet and he called. The river was a blank, something like the jack of hearts. I bet and was shocked when I got raised, and sat up to try and figure out what this guy might have. AA? No, he would have played it more aggressively on the flop. JJ? No, again this guy was not a slowplaying type and would be scared of the hearts. J8? Yeah, that seems more likely than a big pair, but doesn’t seem right. Could he have the flush?
Anyway, my curiousity got the best of me and I decided to pay him off even though I was pretty sure I was dead (the combination of (curiousity) + (the small chance my hand was good) + (the value of this information for future hands) made it worth the extra bet). I call, and he shows 83h for the flush. Now, on this hand, I was right about several things, and I was mentally patting myself on the back for my courageous blind defense with 64o. I was right to call his preflop raise, as he had only one overcard and I was much better than 3:1 to win. I was right that my hand was good on the turn, and I was right that I was beaten on the river.
Another minute went by and I realized just how terrible it is to congratulate yourself for anything when you lose 5 big bets with 64o. Yes, I was right about the play preflop, but I was wrong that my second pair was good on the flop, and I gave him an extra bet on the river when I was pretty sure I was beaten. 64o?
It was just another hand in a series of hundreds, but this hand resonated with me for a few days. I felt there was a lesson to be learned here, but I hadn’t yet deciphered what it was.
Recently I was going over some of Monk’s hands from his terrible run of cards, trying to figure out what if it was simply variance or if he had a serious leak somewhere. What I found was several hands where he was overplaying top pair against a single opponent when it was clear to me that he was badly beaten. I asked him about these hands, and he remembered them, usually saying that the single opponent was a maniac, and he had thought his top pair was good. From my perspective, it was obvious that the opponent’s 3 bet meant two pair or better. But after his explanation, I could see how this signal could be misinterpreted if the sender was a maniac.
I thought about this a while, and I ended up telling Monk, “I play the cards a lot more than you, and the players a lot less than you.” He agreed, and realized that he needs to play the cards more. On the other hand, I think I need to play the players more, and my focus on the cards is probably something that comes out of the year of playing no-fold-em games. In low-limit games, if you see a 3 bet, you’re top pair is toilet paper. The middel limit games force you to go beyond this mentality, ,and I’ve been learning how to play the players more. It’s a lot easier to figure out what one or two opponents are thinking than 8 or 9 calling stations.
Which brings us back to my 64o. On this hand, I was playing the player, and not the cards, and although I played the hand correctly (almost) from the playing-the-player perspective, in the long run, I’m going to lose money calling maniacs with 64o in the big blind. While you might be able to outplay the raiser 70% of the time, the hand is just not strong enough odds-wise to make you a profit in the long run.
The lesson here is that the predictability of your opponents dictates the importance of your hole cards. If your opponent is predictable enough, you can get away with playing any two cards profitably, since in effect you have “complete information”. The more unpredictable the player is, the stronger your hand needs to be, since you end up relying more heavily on the strength of your hand (since it’s much more difficult to outplay an unpredictable opponent).
Thanks for reading and throw that 64o in the muck.

Year in Review

“A mighty lesson we inherit:
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To Mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, Man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source; “

“It’s a good idea to obey all the rules when you’re young just so you’ll have the strength to break them when you’re old.”
–Mark Twain
A year ago, I began this blog in the hope that it would help me develop my game and my writing style. 145 posts later, I think it’s done both of those things, and helped me to meet some amazing people along the way. I don’t think it’s coincidence that this past week has been one of my best ever, and the bankroll is at an all-time high. I’m still making plenty of mistakes and end up kicking myself for one bad play every session, but I’ve come a long way from the days of $3-6 and struggling to calculate pot odds of a year ago.
On a personal front, the year has been one of acceptance and adjustment. The words “football player” have always been tied to my identity, and this year represented the first real year I haven’t been putting on the gear 3 times a week. I posted about this in one of my first posts:
John Updike said that retirement for athletes is like a “little death.” An athlete feels the rush of adrenaline every day, feeling your muscles tense as your body obeys your brain’s almost subconscious commands. Then one day, you don’t feel this ever again. It’s tough to swallow. I’m hoping that I’m being reborn as a poker player.
I’ve reluctantly become much more of a poker player than a football player, and without an outlet for competition and concentration, I’m sure I’d be restlessly trying to figure out what to do with myself.
I’ve also had to accept the grind of the 9 to 5 workday, doing a job that often leaves me feeling I haven’t used the skills and talents that I spent my educational life developing. Hours of concentration at the poker tables have helped to soothe this frustration. Sitting down in front of the computer and devoting full concentration to playing each and every hand has a calming, meditative effect. Just as running a post route and knowing that the only thing to do at this moment is make the catch, being “in the moment” and playing the cards I’m dealt makes me feel alive, making the most of myself at that moment.
So what have I learned? I think the main goal of a beginning poker player should be the same as anyone trying to learn an extremely complicated task: learn the fundamental aspects of the task so well that you no longer have to think about them. Whether you are learning an instrument, a sport, or poker, there are a lot of basic procedures surrounding the task that can’t be learned without a great deal of experience. In poker, basics such as pot odds for common draws and starting hand requirements represent these procedures that a beginning player must know so well that they don’t need to waste precious thought while at the table during play. Only when these basic procedures become so ingrained in the player can he open himself up to true observation of the game, making room for creative improvisations that make the game so beautiful.
As an analogy, think of the lead guitarist who is learning to play many different scales. If he is forced to search his memory for the pattern of a scale he is playing, this takes away from his concentration and feel for the music. A year ago, I was too busy trying to calculate odds and remember the preflop betting to notice obscure signals my opponent was sending. These days, those things come automatically, and the slight twist of the wrist when my opponent throws in her chips is a signal that I receive and act upon. Freed from the mechanical fundamentals of the game, my mind is now free to open up my game with creativity and imagination. In other words, I feel like I’m starting to play real poker.
Of course, a big part of that is moving beyond the no-fold ’em games where you have to show down the best hand to win. There isn’t much room for creativity when your opponents will call you down no matter what you do. And although I find the middle-limit games much more enjoyable due to the increased reward for reading hands and players, I wouldn’t stand a chance in these games without the lessons I learned in the low limit games. You’ve heard it before, but if you can’t beat the no fold-em low limit games, you’re in for a big surprise if you think you can beat the next limit up.
I want to say a big thanks to all my readers and fellow bloggers for their support, advice, and comments. I’ve always tried hard to write quality posts, in the hope that I can communicate some of the lessons I’ve learned and help you to avoid learning the same lessons “the hard way.” I believe that your time is sacred, and I greatly appreciate the hours that my loyal readers have spent with me along my journey.
Ok, time to get back to the tables. I leave you with the top 10 things I’ve learned in the past year at the tables, in no particular order.

  • When moving up in limits, pretend that you’re starting over from scratch. The game changes so much from $3-6 to $5-10 and $5-10 to $10-20 that you really need to go back to the basics and be open to learning the new game. If you are an online player and were playing multiple tables at a lower limit, play a single table at the new limit for a while before trying to play 2.
  • Fight hard to be performance oriented. If you’re committed to the game, results are irrelevant. As long as you’re properly bankrolled to play, you shouldn’t worry about results. Good performance will get the money in the long run.
  • Have a stop loss limit. A lot of people argue against this, but I’ve seen very few players who can play their best game after losing more than 35 big bets. Of course, if you’ve truly gone beyond results-oriented thinking and can focus solely on performance, than you don’t need a stop loss. Like I said, this is extremely rare.
  • Do things to avoid the grind. Poker should be fun, and if you are playing the same game the same way for hours and hours every week, you need to do things to “shock your system” that force you to improve your game. Take an occasional shot at a bigger game if your bankroll can handle it. Drop down in limit and play looser than your normally do. Change your game temporarily and you’ll come back to your regular game rejuvenated with new tools to beat the game.
  • Review your play. If you’re an online player, use PokerTracker to review your sessions after you’ve left the table. It takes 15 minutes to review a 3 hour session, and will drastically improve your game.
  • Celebrate your good performance, and be critical of your bad plays. Personally, I tend to focus on my mistakes, and end up beating myself up for a single bad play even if the rest of the session I played perfect poker. Everybody makes mistakes, so lighten up on yourself.
  • Make the most of your time at the table. When you’re not in a hand, try to put other people on hands, or think about the last pot you played and what you did right or wrong. If you’re going to play poker, don’t read a book or watch tv.
  • Read. A few hours spent reading a poker book can give you a new perspective on the game, and is often worth much more than just a few hours at the table.
  • Create an environment conducing to winning. Time is precious, and it’s often difficult to set aside a block of time to play poker. In the past, I found myself logging on to play a few orbits while dinner was in the oven and my attention wasn’t fully on the game. If you don’t have a block of time where you aren’t going to be disturbed, don’t play.
  • Find some people who you can talk to about poker. When the cards go cold for weeks, and your bankroll is being depleted by bad beats, it can be tough to sit down at the tables and face the poker gods alone. It helps to have a perspective of the game other than your own.

Thanks for reading and good cards.

Poker By The Bay

“He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires and fears is more than a King.”
–John Milton
After a long week of listening to conference presentations in San Francisco, it’s good to be back home in the comfy green, yellow, and red glow of PartyPoker’s virtual tables. I am appreciating the convenience and flexibility of online play after adding Colma’s “Lucky Chances” casino to the list of brick and mortal establishments I’ve visited. After the conference presentations were done for the day, I hopped on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) train and took the 20 minute ride to Colma from downtown San Francisco. Anyone living in LA is blown away by any decent form of underground transport, so I happily sat on the train and wished for such a modern convenience in the City of Angels. I read in some brochure that the town of Colma has something like 10 times as many dead residents as living… but I was still amazed as we passed 7 or 8 huge cemeteries on the short ride from the Underground station to the casino. I suppressed the urge to sprint out among the endless rows of tombstones looking for Arch Stanton’s grave and got ready to play some poker.
Lucky Chances was a small casino, and the poker section was probably around the same size as the Bellagio poker room. Much smaller than the monstrous Hollywood Park, Bicycle, and Commerce casinos that I’ve grown accustomed to. The variety of games spread was limited: 3-6, 6-12, and 9-18, and had 4 or 5 $100 buy in low limit games. There was no “high limit” section, but I did see one or two 20-40 games going on, and in the middle of the room, a table full of black chips. I was a little confused by this, as the surrounding tables had something like $1000 total on the entire table. Yet here was this table with guys pushing $1000 bets in black chip denominations to the center of the table, and there looked to be something like $50,000 on the table in $100 chips. The floorman said that this was the $10-20 No Limit game, $1000 buy in, $40 to open. The only other time I can remember seeing a game this big was the NL cash games at the Horseshoe during the WSOP.
I watched the action for a minute, but couldn’t get much of a read on the players, who seemed to be a bunch of regulars. Lots of chips moving around, but very few showdowns, so I headed off to a $100 No Limit game while I waited for my $9-18 seat. The house rules were slightly different to what I’m used to– 1-1-2 blind structure ($1 blind on the button) and $4 to open. This meant that if 4 or 5 players limped (quite common), there was already $20 in the pot on the flop. In addition, they used $1 white chips, which meant that a normal raise required the player to push out a stack of $20 chips, and resulted in a mountain of chips in the pot. Players who had doubled through a few times had Raymer-like chip pyramids in front of them.
The play was relatively uninteresting, although I did manage to get all my chips in 3 hands in a row against the same player, and ended up winning 2 of these all-ins and losing one for a nice little profit. Luckily I was called for the $9-18, and took a seat after buying a rack of $3 chips (has anyone else seen a $3 chip before?).
The play was relatively straightforward and uninteresting, but after playing a fair bit of $10-20 and $15-30 online and at Hollywood Park , I really felt like I’d taken a big step forward in “playing the players” (or maybe it was just the coffee). The lessons I’d learned weeks before finally were finally sinking in, and I felt like I had a good feel for the middle limit game. The bets and raises of other players had become signals, and I felt like I knew what they meant. I ended up breaking about even for the session, but managed to win a couple big pots on stone cold bluffs based on good reads. I really think Roy Cooke’s quote in his Cardplayer article this week hits the nail on the head:
“It’s less about the cards you hold than the way you play them. I have often said that the cards break even, but the chips don’t.”
I came out of the session feeling pretty confident about my play. It was one of the first times I had felt strongly about my reads, and was able to capitalize on those reads to make good raises and laydowns. It’s carried over to my online play, and I am now feeling much more comfortable with my play in the $10-20 6 max games.
Although game selection was very limited at Lucky Chances, it had a quaint atmosphere that made it a fun place to play. I’m glad I went, but if I lived in the San Francisco area I don’t think I’d be making too many trips there.
I had a couple of very interesting conversations with up-and-coming players this weekend, who happen to be on opposite ends of the emotional poker roller coaster. One has been running extremely well, and the other is on a terrible cold streak. Both players wanted to know if I thought they had the “right stuff” to be a great poker player. This forced me to think of what it is that makes a player great, which I had never really done before.
So what is the recipe for a great poker player?
1. Knowledge
The simplest part of the game is learning the starting standards, the odds, and all the other stuff you have to memorize as a foundation for the game. However, it’s clear that many players never spend the time to understand the aspects of gambling theory that are crucial to success in poker. The “Knowledge” category really applies to the discipline necessary to succeed as a poker player– reviewing your play, constantly trying to improve your game through books and tools, and “doing your homework” on your opponents. None of these things are very difficult to do, but they require diligence and discipline since they aren’t very much fun. The great poker players are willing to think and study their game away from the table, and do everything they can to increase the amount of information they have when they sit down to play.
2. Emotional Control
A great player learns to accept variance, and separate performance from results. We’ve been taught for most of our lives that results are the only thing that matters, so bankroll swings and cold streaks are very difficult for the untrained poker mind to accept. The great players are able to separate results and performance, and they are happy when they are getting their money in as a favorite, no matter what the result. No matter how skilled a player is, if he is prone to tilting, he puts himself at a huge disadvantage during those times when he is not playing his best game.
3. Talent
The murkiest of the three attributes here, talent refers to the “card sense” and “people sense” that compose the “feel” of poker. Most people argue that reading people at the table is a combination of both natural and learned ability. Some people are just born with a better ability to detect patterns in behavior than others. After all, reading people was crucial to survival back in our caveman days. Hook up with the wrong partner and you may end up getting clubbed in the head when you’re asleep. I don’t know much about biology, but it makes sense to me that humans “read people” at an instinctual level, and some people are just born with strong observational skills when it comes to behavior patterns. While you can probably become an excellent player without this talent, it may not be possible to achieve greatness without a strong instinctual ability to read people. Of course, in online poker, this skill is relatively unimportant.
Obviously it’s not quite this simple, but I think these are the three major areas of development in a player’s evolution from an average player to a great one. You can talk about courage, and competitiveness, and a “love for the game,” but those are things that you either have or you don’t.
Ray Zee’s (2+2 author) take on a poker player’s evolution: The Different Stages in a Player’s Life
“Finally for our player, if he can get through the maze, may find himself armed with the tools to round out expert status. This last stage incorporates the tight play that’s a must in poker, with the imagination to win pots without the best hand.”
Speaking of evolution, thanks to Po’ Boy for directing me to my favorite 2+2 post I’ve read: Evolution of a 2+2er:
1. “Wow, this forum is awesome! Everyone talking poker and stuff. I’ll post some hands and see what people think.”
2. “Screw these guys. They think they know everything. Well how come I’m winning so much then? Hunh? Position shmosition!”
3. “Damn these guys are all pessimists. I say if you can’t run over a 6-12 game while half-asleep, you’re a total monkey, IMHO.”
4. “Ok, maybe I need to be open to new ideas.”
5. “Variance is a bitch. This game is practically all luck. I’m going to make a post titled: ‘luck vs. skill’.”
6. “I want to hear from the forum experts about all the considerations that come into play when defending the big blind against an open-raiser in the cutoff when you hold A3o, J9s, and 44.”
7. “I found this news group about poker but all they do is either fight or bitch about how much they hate 2+2. I don’t get it.”
8. “I’ll never fold on the river again.”
9. “I need to stop paying off the river bets.”
10. “I’ll never fold on the river again.”
11. “That Tommy Angelo character sure has some strange ideas about how to play poker.”
12. “What is this no-limit stuff? Mason says in Poker Essays Vol II, which I’ve read 14 times, that it’s a piece of cake. You simply bet enough so they can’t call you on a draw. How hard is that?”
13. “The chances that I’ll draw out plus the chances that he’s bluffing plus the chances that he’ll fold a better hand add up 122%, so I should raise in this spot.”
14. “I wonder if Paradise Poker really is owned by the mafia. You never know.”
15. “Look at this post! A pre-flop question? Gimme a break. If you haven’t figured out preflop by now, forget it.”
16. “Jesus Christ, I just don’t have the patience to read through yet another post on how to play AK after you miss the flop in a three-way pot in middle position.”
17. “You know, that Tommy Angelo character is starting to make sense.”
18. “Look, play whatever hand you want, however you want, in any position you want. I really don’t care. You’ll either figure it out or you won’t.”
19. “I’ll never talk strategy or specifics with anyone again as long as I live.”
20. “I’m going to post this hand from last night cause it’s so damn funny what happened. These guys will get a kick out of it.”
21. “awww screw it i think ill just go fishin in mopntana and throw away my worthliss spell chekcer besides punctuation is for suckers, i dont have the time or inclination; to discuss poker anymore”

Ok, time to hit the tables. I leave you with some lively banter from my favorite poker site. Talk about tapping the aquarium… this guy applies a sledgehammer to the glass…
cecloak: wtf is trey miz
trey_miz: thanks for playing
trey_miz: bring it fish
Icecloak: wtf is a fish
trey_miz: lol
trey_miz: u
trey_miz: u are a fish
trey_miz: a total fish
Icecloak: i’m obviously not a fish if i’m playin the computer foo
Monk: its what babies call people when they lose
trey_miz: not losing
trey_miz: don’t say stupid XXXX drn
Monk: no
trey_miz: drn
trey_miz: u are a lousy no-good fish
trey_miz: and u know it
rey_miz: so shut your fish trap or get out
trey_miz: send it