The Cost of Cover

“An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.”
–Friedrich Engels
I’m still extremely busy working on the best online poker site out there, but I did manage to get in a long, grueling session yesterday with the fish at Hollywood Park. I met up with Bill Rini and my buddy M for a long night of bad beats and brutal river cards. After coming in second in a single table “shootout” sit-n-go (Bill was knocked out in 3rd as an 85% favorite when our opponent rivered a deuce to pair his kicker, and my short stack was no match for our lucky loose aggressive opponent), I headed over to the top section for some wild $15-30 action.
I get red aces on my second hand, and the fun begins. A king flops, and two players call me to the river, which is another king. I make the crying call, and one opponent shows K8o and the other shows K4o. Great start.
No cards, no flops, and an hour later I was still stuck. I get Black Aces in early position, and as usual, 4 people cold call and want to see the flop along with me. I end up getting crushed by the big blind, who flops trips with his monster hand, J3o.
The bad beats continued for 4 more hours, and I found myself stuck 40 big bets, which is about as much as you can be stuck playing tight for 4 hours. Fortunately, I still felt on top of my game and didn’t let the beats affect me. The game was good, and I resolved to continue playing my best poker and not worry about the results. M came to sweat me before heading home, and I flashed him the “one more orbit” sign as I posted my final big blind.
By the time the button made it back to me, I had raked in 47 big bets to go home a winner. Most of it I owe to ramming and jamming my suited aces in a 6 way capped pot. The dealer pushed the biggest pot of the night (30 big bets) to me after I flopped an 8 and two of my suit and hit my second pair on the turn. The flush never came, but a woman with J2s was trapped between me and another player who hit top and bottom pair on the turn. My top two pair were good, and that single monster pot made up for a night of horrible beats.
Capping this pot with my suited aces confirmed the wisdom of Andy Prock:
“Poker is a game of little secrets. The best players aren’t the best because they have a different understanding of the fundamental nature of the game. They are the best because they have a deep understanding of all the tiny little edges that you can get here and there.”
I’m still trying to learn all the little secrets, but I owe a few extra big bets to the nugget of wisdom I learned from Izmet Fekali:
“The interesting thing here is that you are still making money
jamming preflop even when against dominating hand. The fish in the
pot took care of that. With enough callers (10-way family pots),
you could safely reraise even if you strongly suspected aces.”

Thanks Izmet. As I move up in limits and start playing against better players, I’ll need to sharpen my edge by gaining an “understanding of the tiny little edges”.
Maximizing Future Expectation with Marginal Hands
Speaking of playing against better players, I’ve been doing some thinking about game theory and the value of disguising your hand in games where your opponents pay attention to the range of hands you raise with. In live play (much more so than online), your table image has a dramatic effect on your win rate. Against weak opponents who never try to put you on a hand, tight is right, and you’ll usually win the most money by simply exploiting your mathematical edges on their overly loose calls. However, when sitting at a table with the same opponents for several hours, even the fishiest opponent will stop paying you off if you are only raising with premium hands.
In order to prevent “information leakage” and encourage your opponents to give you action on your good hands, it becomes necessary to disguise your premium hands. Abdul Jalib writes about this in his superb essay, Holdem Preflop Theory According to Abdul:
“Most hands are worth less than the blinds and so for most hands stealing the blinds is a coup; hence, raising is correct for most hands. AA is worth about four times the blinds, so stealing the blinds with it and your other very strong hands is a major disaster. Without other concerns, in a tight game you should raise with marginal hands, and limp (and usually reraise if raised) with your strongest hands. This advice contradicts Sklansky and Malmuth. Balance your hands that you could have in various preflop scenarios, mixing strong with weak and weak with strong, so that you do not give too much information away by your actions, yet strive to still play most hands appropriately.
The key here is the last sentence: strive to still play most hands appropriately. “Appropriately” here means playing the hand as you would if your opponents had no information about your play, and you are playing the hand solely from an Expected Value standpoint. We always want to maximize our Expected Value at any given moment, but disguising your hands maximizes future expected value rather than EV in the present.
Thinking about these concepts brought me back to my card-counting days, and many of the textbooks in the blackjack canon. Before I ever played a hand of poker for money, I’d been drilled with the importance of expected value by the Sklansky-like wizards of blackjack. In the blackjack world, EV is king, and the successful card counter wins by consistently exploting tiny edges over the house. Most card-counting texts focused on mathematical analyses of how to maximize your mathematical expectation by optimal play. The books explain in detail which action theoretically has the highest expectation, without regard to other considerations. But there was always a chapter about “The Cost of Cover,” which explained why sometimes a sub-optimal play would bring you better returns when future action was taken into consideration.
In his book, “Burning the Tables in Las Vegas”, Ian Andersen describes the logic of sacrificing a small edge in the present in order to maximize future returns:
“I believed that if I could make significant and consistent deviations from basic strategy at little cost, I could buy myself unlimited playing time. How much money, I wondered, could a blackjack professional win if the casino deemed him a rank sucker? I knew from my own observations that as long as a casino doesn’t view a player as a threat, it’s extremely unlikely he’ll be backed off. Surely, casino personnel reason, the laws of probability will eventually catch up with the player, no matter how much he’s won.”
Applying this idea to poker, how best can we deviate from maximizing our current Expected Value in order to collect more big bets in the future?
One way to do this is the “Mad” Mike Caro method. When you first sit down at a table, simply ram and jam your hand to the showdown no matter what you hold. No hand in hold ’em is that big of an underdog, so you stand a decent chance of winning. If you lose, then you can chalk it up to a 6 big-bet investment in your table image. Over the course of a few hours, this represents only a few calls that your opponents wouldn’t have made had you played that first hand “optimally”. First impressions go a long way.
But observant opponents can see through this act. I prefer to disguise my play by occasionally opening with marginal hands for a raise. This isn’t rocket science, but if you’ve been playing tight and it’s folded to you in middle position, you can now play a wide range of hands profitably, assuming your opponents will respect your raises (often this assumption is not valid). Hands like K8s or even T7s can be played profitably against the right mix of opponents, since you will often end up heads up against the blinds, and have many “implied outs” which you can take the pot with on a bluff. Most sane opponents will not call a tight opponent’s flop bet when an Ace hits the board (unless, of course, they have one).
Of course, mixing marginal hands into your set of openers requires you to be able to play well past the flop. Beginning low-limit players can come out winners just by playing good preflop hands against the sea of calling stations. But as you move up in limits and pots are contested by a smaller number of opponents, post flop play and reading your opponent’s hand account for a larger percentage of your winnings.
See Gus Hansen and Daniel Negreanu for practical examples of the theory discussed above.
Disguising your hand is necessary only when your opponents are actually paying attention. Most online players will call you down even if you only play aces, so there’s no need to deviate from the mathematically optimal play. In live play, you probably need to mix it up a little bit.
So if you’ve been folding for an hour and everyone folds to you in middle position, you now have an excuse to raise with hands like T8s. Just don’t blame me if you run into Aces.
Mandatory shill: don’t forget to read this so you can maximize the information you have about your online opponents.

Poker Players vs. Poker Writers and The Natural

“Iris Gaines: You know, I believe we have two lives.
Roy Hobbs: How… what do you mean?
Iris Gaines: The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.”

In one of my favorite sports movies of all time, a baseball version of the Arthurian legend, we’re treated to a great scene in which the baseball version of Perceval (Robert Redford) has an intense dialogue with the top baseball reporter of the day, Max Mercy (Robert Duvall).
Hobbs: “Did you ever play the game, Max?”
Mercy: “No, but I do make it a lot more interesting. I’m here to protect this game; and I do it by making or breaking the likes of you.

Mercy’s desire for power gives him a large amount of control over the game– the people want stories and poetry, and Duvall’s character takes the idea of “poetic license” to the extreme to create stories that people want to believe. But Max never played the game, so the stories he creates are based in an outsider’s world of the game, someone who hasn’t lived through the drama of the game he writes about. I’m a big believer in the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction,” and that the real stories in life are a lot more interesting than fictional ones, if the writer can tap into the dramatic arc of the subject’s life.
I’ve always considered myself more of a poker player than a writer, but these days I haven’t had much time to do either. There is a lot of work behind the scenes at an online poker site to bring players a fair and enjoyable game. Don’t get me wrong, I like my job a lot, it’s just that I really miss playing and writing about poker. I’m still playing, but for the few hours I sit down at the table to play each week, I have to shake the rust off my game and “get back in the groove” of betting, raising, and computing pot odds.
And if I don’t have the time to play much poker, I feel a little bit like Max Mercy when writing about poker. The struggles for discovery and “lightbulb moments” that came so frequently a few months ago are few and far between. Many of the ideas at the higher limits are learned through experience, and I find many of my plays are based on “feel” rather than some concept that can be explained. Maybe Max Mercy would be able to put these concepts into words, but the player would say something like “it just made sense to me.”
Things are settling down at work, so hopefully I’ll be back 4 tabling again sometime in the near future. For everybody out there who is putting in the hours at the tables– win or lose, enjoy it. I miss the marathon sessions and the ups and downs of the grind.
Oh yeah, this will help you have more ups than downs if you’re out there grinding every night.
On a lighter note, 2+2er natedogg posted a more comical view of these ideas in his post, 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”

Suckout Theory and Monk’s Lament

I’m Exhausted. On the positive side, I can’t remember ever enjoying my job as much as I do now. On the negative side, I feel like I could sleep for a month. In addition to all of the regular work, I’ve been handling most of the support and sales issues for The Poker Tracker Guide. Let’s just say I have a new respect for support staff. The feeback, reviews, and support for The Poker Tracker Guide has been great, and hopefully the sales numbers will pick up soon.
Life at Full Tilt Poker is good, and always busy. Luckily for me the kitchen is fully stocked with sugar filled products and caffeine, so a (legal) chemical induced “second wind” is just around the corner. I’m anxiously awaiting FHWRDH‘s arrival next week, and I’m looking forward to working with him on a regular basis. If we can keep hiring poker bloggers at this rate, we should have the entire LA crew employed by summer…
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to play much poker, although I was able to win the biggest pot of my life Monday night at a $5-10 No-Limit game with Doyle’s favorite hand, AQ. Although I believe that a good deal of money is lost in big pots when top pair goes down to a bigger hand, this time my queen and the one on the board were good as my Ace outkicked my opponent’s King. I don’t consider myself much of a No-Limit player, but conversations with DoubleAs have made me consider adding an NL game to the mix while multitabling. The games are just so good these days.
I’ve been slacking on the poker theory posts, and I wanted to write something about isolating weak opponents in middle limit games, but I fear I’d pass out in the middle of the post. Instead, I’m going to post a link to my favorite theory post ever, as well as discussing some of the most important points.
If he can’t do it, Abdul can!
Abdul Jalib’s Theory of Sucking Out is probably the best advice on how to play draws in limit hold em ever written. Sometimes I try to picture what Abdul was thinking when he clicked the “Submit” button and published the post on RGP for the world to see. The wisdom in the post set me on the right path to understanding how to play draws, and led to important concepts such as pot equity and counting outs and bets. It took me 3 or 4 readings to get a grip on everything Adbul reveals, but the time was definitely well spent. Here’s a list of three of the most important concepts discussed in the post:
1. “If you have the best of it on additional money going into the pot,
you should try to maximize the additional money going into the pot.”

Abdul leads off the post with a clarification of when it is profitable to “bet on the come.” The key here is figuring out when you have the best of it. Basically when the odds of hitting your draw are better than the odds that the pot is laying you, you want to ram and jam. If the pot is laying us 10 to 1 and we are chasing our flush card with 6 other people in the pot, we can think of every additional bet that goes into the pot as our money (in terms of EV). Our pot equity in hands with many players and we hold the best draw is huge, and we should play these hands as fast as we can. I’m not going to get into gambling theory here, but basically there are many times in limit holdem where the pot is laying you a huge overlay on your draw. Maximizing your profit in these situations is where most of the money comes from in loose games.
2. ” Rules of thumb for calling on the turn: Usually, call one bet with open-ended straight draws and flush draws, and with a medium pot size you can call two cold. With a set you should usually be calling all bets (or raising, of course.) Two overcards are usually no good to draw with on the turn, except sometimes heads-up. When the pot is big, you can call with a gutshot straight draw to the nuts.
Rules of thumb for calling on the flop: Call with any draw that you
would call with on the turn, often for two bets cold or more. Call
with gutshots to the nuts if you can be pretty sure you will only have
to pay one bet. Also for one bet, a pair with a backdoor flush draw
is very worthwhile, and so is a backdoor flush draw with a backdoor
straight draw, and similarly for other combinations of weak draws that
together become worthwhile. Be reluctant to call with overcards,
unless heads-up or the board does not have many draws and you are
pretty sure you have the best overcards, like AQ in an unraised pot.”

It takes a while to be comfortable calculating odds and outs at the table, but rules of thumb are easy to remember. The above rules allow you to play your draws confidently and profitably. Note that you can profitably call with gutshot draws on the flop in many circustances, which goes against conventional poker wisdom (“and son, never draw to an inside straight”). Of course, your implied odds have to be better than 11:1 unless you have other outs.
3. “Your effective pot size is how much you can expect to win at
the end if you indeed win. It’s the current pot size plus
expected action. Generally that will be at least one big
bet bigger than the current pot size, possibly many more big
bets if you expect a lot of action.
You should at least call when your effective outs times
one more than the effective pot size is greater than the number
of unseen cards. The number of unseen cards is usually 46 on the
turn or 47 on the flop. Recast the effective pot size in units of
the number of bets you will need to call.”

This gem helped me survive the loose and wild low limit no fold em at Hollywood Park. The math is simple, you just have to keep an eye on the bets going into the pot throughout the hand, which is pretty easy after you get used to it. The key here is learning how to figure out the effective pot size, or how big the pot is going to be by the showdown. This notion of “implied odds” is something that NL players use on every hand, as they are much more important in big-bet games. Compared to these games, it’s pretty easy to determine if our opponents will call us down if we make our hand.
I recommend reading Abdul’s post a few times; the concepts are complex enough that it takes a little thought to get a handle on them, and his writing is subtle. The three gems above are my favorite, and helped me pick up a pot here and there that I wouldn’t have if Abdul hadn’t been so kind as to share his wisdom.
Ok, that’s my weak attempt at some poker theory. Unoriginal, but far better than anything I can come up with at the moment.
Monk’s Lament
Loyal readers will remember my protege, the brilliant and stubborn Monk, who recently graduated from my tutelage and has been cleaning up at the $5-10 short handed games. Last week, Monk took the leap, and left his day job for a 2 month hiatus to see what the life of a professional online poker player was like.
Monk plays a far more high-variance style of poker than I do. Rarely will I see a hand that he’s involved in past the flop not get three-bet at some point, and Monk seems to have a knack for putting people on tilt. He’s good at extracting the maximum number of chips possible from his opponents, but this leads to huge swings, especially at the wild shorthanded games.
I don’t know anything about playing online poker for a living, but I suggested short session to maintain focus and timing those sessions to coincide with the best games. That was about the only advice I could offer, and I was both nervous and excited to see how my pupil would fare.
The first couple days were great, and Monk went on a 400 Big Bet upswing to start off his “pro” career. I breathed a sigh of relief, as I thought this lucky streak of variance would pad his bankroll enough to make it unbreakable.
And then, after a few days of breakeven poker, the downswing began. Every so often I’d get sent a vicious bad beat that took a bite out of Monk’s bankroll, 15 big bets at a time. Some of these beats were just ridiculous, and it seemed that every time he held an overpair his opponent would flop a set.
Monk’s spirits were obviously pretty low at this point, and the only thing I could do is remind him that it would turn around eventually. It’s a lot easier to say that from the sidelines, but when you’re getting smashed with the best hand with your livelihood at stakes, you’ve got a different perspective. Statistics and faith in your game are the crutches for your spirit during a downswing if you’re a poker pro, but I’ve never had to face anything like what Monk is going through. If it’s hard for me to watch on the other side of the glass, I couldn’t imagine how hard it is for Monk to handle.
As of this morning, the 500 big bet downswing hasn’t been broken. But Monk’s spirit hasn’t either. I think if he can overcome the frustration of this downswing, he’s going to have a great two months. Pretty stressful for the first week on the job, but then again, what job isn’t?
I guess they were right when they say “Poker is a hard way to make an easy living.” Variance is a hard thing to understand, and even harder to handle.
The Reviews Are In
It’s almost time for the first non hold-em poker blogger tournament. At least when I get massacred in the HORSE tournament, it’ll be on my homecourt. I don’t even know what the E stands for– Stud Eight or Better, I think.
I’m going to leave you with one of my favorite email reviews of the Poker Tracker Guide. The support and feedback for the guide has been great, and I want to say a big thank you to everyone who’s bought the book.
My favorite email came from a Poker Tracker Guide reader who was hesitant to buy it because the $20 represented a reasonable chunk of his $.50-$1 bankroll. Here’s what he had to say after reading the guide:
Holy crap! The game-time explanation and mechanics of searching out loose players alone was worth the $20. I had no idea I could use pt like this! Since I play penny-ante I was sure I’d only be using the first section of pt guide. But it was the second section that made me glad I bought it 🙂
I have no doubt that eventually I would’ve found these things out, probably… maybe. But now I know them within just a day or two or having bought pt (and I seriously underestimated what an incredible tool Pat has created).
I thought pt was like a mainframe computer – powerful for analyzing MY play but when you ‘left home it stayed behind’. But thanks to pt guide I see that it’s more like a tiny laptop – you take it with you when hitting the online tables. In fact, not using pt WHILE playing is like telling people ‘please, have some of my money. I insist’.
–Reluctant PT Guide Buyer
PS How much do you want for the rest of the copies? I’m not too thrilled with facing others that know all this stuff (in higher limits). Can pt guide just be our little secret?

A Little Help from My Friends

I want to say a big THANK YOU for all the support we’ve received for the Poker Tracker Guide. All of the positive feedback and reviews have made the effort worthwhile, and your support means a lot to me.
Unfortunately I’ve been way too busy to post, but I wanted to make sure everybody knows about the Full Tilt Poker affiliate program. Basically anybody with a web site can sign up, and I urge you all to do so. Help me help you, and sign up to be an affiliate here:
Become a Full Tilt Poker Affilate
Hopefully I can get back to posting about poker theory later in the week if I can get a few minutes to write. Thanks again for your support.