“Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”
–Jawaharlal Nehru
It’s almost that time. Time for the biggest poker tournament in the history of the game. And also time for the second gathering of the strange breed of folks called “poker bloggers”. I’m excited to participate in both.
After a long internal struggle of whether or not I wanted to put my dead money in the prize pool for the first event of this year’s WSOP, I finally gave in to the call of the bracelet, and sent in my registration. After a couple of excellent sessions in the Party $15-30, I had won enough for a semi-guilt free buy in. Although I rarely play tourneys, I have played and read enough to play a tight aggressive strategy reasonably well. I played well in the LA Poker classic, and felt like I could compete with the few pros I sat with during the tournament. In the end, I decided that one shot at a bracelet was worth the experience, even though I don’t like my chances against 2000 of the world’s best.
Even after 18 years of football experience, I always got very nervous the night before the first game of every season. The nerves went away as the season went on, but I was always on edge for the opener. 5 days away from the tourney, I’m feeling like the season opener is upon me. It’s a feeling I haven’t felt in 2 years, a feeling I miss and thought I’d never get back. I can see how people get hooked on these tourneys… Although I lack experience, I feel focused and ready to play the best game I can on Friday.
Of course, the afterparty with the bloggers on Friday will be the icing on the cake (assuming I’m not miraculously still in the hunt for a bracelet).
Game Theory
I’m not sure why, but over the past two weeks, in books and conversations I keep stumbling upon the role of Game Theory in poker. Although I never got into it as deeply as I would have liked, I did study a fair bit of game theory in my academic career. So when I come across poker related game theory, my eyes/ears perk up.
Game theory is the study of how people interact and make decisions, and usually involves a mathematical model that simplifies the real-world interaction and decision-making process among the people involved. The key assumption required for these models to “work” is that the actors in the game are Rational: people make decisions that are in their best interest, and their best interest involves the end goal of “winning” the game.
Whether or not an individual poker player is rational is a completely different topic, and I’m not going to touch that one.
My main interest in poker game theory is introducing non-optimal (in terms of odds) plays in order to confuse opponents, thereby creating greater future returns.
Assume we have a table full of bots that play tournament poker. Assume that these bots play “by the book,” and raise when the odds are in their favor, and fold otherwise. The bots never bluff, and have no knowledge of their opponent bots strategy.
This game would be extremely boring to watch– most of the hands would be decided before the flop, but for those that weren’t, they would involve primarily pair vs. pair or AK vs. pair all-ins (much like a real game).
Now imagine you sit down at the table. What is your optimal strategy? It’s pretty clear that you would just min-raise the bots to death preflop, folding when you’re called or raised. You’d be able to steal plenty of blinds, and wait for a double up when holding a big pair. Your advantage is huge since you can narrow down your opponents’ possible hands down to a very small range.
Now suppose another game theorist sits down at the table with you. Your old optimal strategy goes down the toilet, and the complexity of the game increases tremendously. Your opponent knows that you will be min-raising with trash hands, and when he has position on you, it’s very difficult for you to combat his re-raises. The game becomes a struggle between you and the game theorist for the blinds of the bots.
How best to combat the game theorist’s re-raises? If you only raise him when you are fairly certain your hands are stronger than his (your hand is much better than a random hand), you will be giving up too much money to his raises. The answer is choosing a percentage of re-raises that will allow you maximize your expectation. If your opponent continues to re-raise you, the optimal bluffing frequency in this case is probably somewhere just under 50% (you’d have to take into account the probability that the bots have a hand).
Note that this model looks something like a table full of weak-tight players with two hyperaggressive players battling it out. The point of this simplistic model is not to advocate a particular playing style, but to stress the importance of adding some randomized plays that “keep the other players honest” and keep them guessing as well.
For the most part, everyone at the table has the same knowledge of poker odds. Most players say that tells are hard to come by among expert players. This means that the difference between good players lies in their abillity to confuse and deceive their opponents. The only way to avoid pattern-izing your deception is to use randomization, so that you don’t even know what move you will make before you make it.
For example, if you never limp with big pairs, observant opponents will pick up on this and have no fear of raising your limps. One way to randomize your play is to say that 17% of the time, I’m going to limp with a pair (the “sub-optimal” play) and 83% of the time I’m going to raise. This is enough to put the fear of our opponents, so now we need a way to randomly make this play with our big pairs. The simple way is to limp when both cards are red, and raise otherwise. I’ll leave the math to the reader.
Of course, your opponents have to be paying pretty close attention to your play for any of these plays to work. But at the highest levels, you can bet they will be.
For most of the games I play, deception has little value, since most of my opponents aren’t paying close enough attention to remember I play I made 20 minutes ago. But it’s fun to think about anyway.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you at the World Series.

The Poker Wisdom of The Matrix

“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”
–George Lois
Although I haven’t been playing much in the past couple of weeks, I did take a few shots at WSOP qualifiers, most notably a $300 buy in tourney that a faithful reader told me about (thanks Sloanny). The tourney was at the top floor of a nearby hotel (the legality of it was unclear), and probably had the worst players I have ever (or will ever) see relative to the prize pool. With rebuys, the prize pool ended up being $30K, with the top prize being a seat at the WSOP main event.
So this was my one shot at the Main Event, and I couldn’t ask for better odds. The field looked to be about 75% full of terrible players, making this tournaments where I’d guess that I actually was somewhat of a favorite.
I’ll spare you the details, but basically I stole a lot of blinds and built my stack only to go all in with QQ on a flop of J 9 4 against a maniac, who called with 33. Somehow I knew the 3rd 3 was coming (I’ve lost to this hand the last 3 times I’ve faced it when I’ve been all in with an overpair), and sure enough, it came on the turn, much to the screaming maniac’s delight. So much for the WSOP.
In general bad beats like this don’t bother me too much, as long as I played as well as I could. But lately the beats have been adding up, and I feel like I’ve forgotten what it feels like to walk out a big winner. So to remind myself what it feels like to beat the odds, I am turning to Neo, Morpheus, and the rest of the Matrix crew for some poker wisdom from those who got tired of the grind…

The Poker Wisdom of the Matrix
Morpheus: The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.
This one goes out to all of the players trying to go beyond the grind and do something more at the poker table than just value bet their premium hands. Morpheus’ lecture foreshadows what could be the future of online poker: a collection of bots and grinders playing systematic poker against a handful of opponents who have to use courage, wits, and creativity to beat them.
In the battle of the romantic Mike McD against the pragmatic Joey Knish, everyone roots for romance. Grinding out high percentage hands and folding marginal hands is a proven formula for success. But the great players who make the big scores are willing to take seemingly absurd risks when they feel they can beat their opponent, and these players represent the “cream of the crop”. Moneymaker’s monster bluff against Farha in the 2003 WSOP was an example of courage and creativity triumphing over percentage play, and illustrated the beauty of poker: a well-timed and executed bluff will always beat a pure percentage play.
Of course, I’m not arguing that mathematical analysis shouldn’t be applied to the way you play your hands. Just as Neo learns to work within the matrix, the creative and courageous poker player must also know the numbers on every hand. But the difference between the stereotypical grinder and the romantic uber-poker-player is creativity and courage.
Agent Smith: It seems that you’ve been living two lives. One life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and you… help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias “Neo” and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.
This quote, from one of my favorite all-time movie characters, goes out to all the poker bloggers out there who have a job. I remember when I was first playing, I would come home from the bureacracy and frustration of work and sit down to the strange world of online poker (or occasionally the even stranger world of Hollywood Park). At the tables, there is some semblance of order. You play well, you win (usually). There are 52 cards, and you can figure out the odds of making your hand and your opponent making his. The closed world of gambling theory and poker concepts was comforting after the confusing and often absurd corporate world.
I think one of the reasons for the popularity of online poker is that it provides hope for everybody out there… not the hope of making a quick buck (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but the hope of someday making the big score after putting in the time and effort to become expert in poker.
Agent Smith: I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.
This one goes out to all the grinders who know what it’s like to run bad. There are few things more frustrating than being repeatedly rivered by a school of fish who chase you down hand after hand. You watch them stacking up monster pots after their two outer came in against all odds, and can’t help but think, “What a game!”. If you aren’t careful, the implied odds being offered to you are like the voice of the Siren, and you begin to play trash like 97 offsuit because you think you can limp in for one bet. But by the time it’s back to you, it’s been three-bet and now you’re forced to call with your trash. At this point you wonder how the gills on your neck got there, and how you ended up investing 4 big bets with your 97o in this huge multi-way pot.
If you can’t make peace with the gambling theory involved in loose games, you’ll wind up like Mr. Smith– facing the long call on the river with the taste of stink in your mouth.
Morpheus: You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind.
Morpheus’ advice to Neo is excellent advice for the aspiring player. Fear, doubt, and disbelief are the symptoms of a player who is results-oriented. With a proper understanding of variance, a player is freed from the frustration of bad beats and bad runs. Understanding of gambling theory and the ebb and flow of bankroll is like armor against results-oriented thinking. Once you’re playing in games within your bankroll and understand variance, you can let it all go and free your mind.
Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?
Morpheus: You’ve never used them before.

Neo’s awakening is similar to the poker player’s leap from weak-tight to tight-aggressive. I’ve seen it in my own game and lately in the play of some friends– instead of thinking that a bet or raise means that an opponent has the nuts, the player opens their eyes and works backwards to determine that the opponent’s betting pattern doesn’t make sense. When the lightbulb goes off and all the pieces come together, they surprisingly announce “Raise” with confidence, and usually rake the pot after their opponent mucks on the river.
The opening of the eyes allows the player to see a wider range of events at the table, and connect them to the psychology and tendencies of their opponents. At this stage, their aggression increases and they now “see” when to make tough laydowns and difficult value bets on the river. At first it hurts, and the player makes a lot of mistakes in judgment, but over time these mistakes are reduced and they have a huge advantage over their opponents. Weak-tight players become targets for well-timed bluffs and value bets, and gamboolers will have to pay through the nose to hit their draws.
Poker is a lot of fun when you open your eyes.
Before I sign off, I have to thank everybody’s who’s supported The Poker Tracker Guide. All of the feedback I’ve gotten has made all of the hard work that went into it worthwhile. Hopefully it’s worth more than a few big bets to all of you Poker Tracker fiends out there.
I also should point out the new offering from Tiltboy extraordinaire Phil Gordon:
Final Table Poker DVD
I haven’t seen it myself, but I have inside information that this DVD is groundbreaking in terms of getting into the mind of a world-class player. Rumor has it the heads-up match between Phil and Chris Ferguson got very competitive.
Thanks for reading and good cards.


Weary the path that does not challenge. Doubt is an incentive to truth and patient inquiry leadeth the way.
–Hosea Ballou
I haven’t had any major poker revelations lately, so the blog has been languishing a bit as of late. Unfortunately there isn’t much poker to speak of, but there will be in the near future (the wife is off to native Sweden for a month, and much poker is planned in her absence). This is mostly due to the heavy hours I’ve been putting in for a certain online poker room (note: no affiliate link). I really like what I’m doing, and I’d like to believe that my work is in some part responsible for Full Tilt’s steady growth. We still have a long way to go before we get the player base of some other sites (especially this one, which is doing all the right things, thanks in part to one of the best poker bloggers out there), but I really believe that we are headed in the right direction. Hand histories are on the horizon, and our team of programmers is fiendishly working away at various functionality improvements. This is not an attempt at shilling– I’m just saying that I’m proud of my work and the efforts of the poker-playing-programmers that I put in the hours with every day.
But enough about Full Tilt. In lieu of a well thought-out post, I’ve got some ramblings that I’ve picked up over the past few weeks that I thought I’d share.
On Gambling Theory
One of the biggest mistakes beginning players make in no-limit hold ’em is overusing the all-in. Basically, they take the saying “I’d rather win a small pot than lose a big one” way too far. While this axiom is often correct in tournaments, where losing all of your chips is a disaster, all-in bets in deep-stack No Limit holdem are rare and usually a bad play.
Let’s look at a simple example to illustrate why the all-in overbet loses you money in the long run. You’ve got pocket eights and limp in along with 3 other players. The flop comes 8c 2h Ah, giving you a set and the rest of the field a heart draw. There are 4 small bets in the pot, and you are first to act. Let’s say you have 200 small bets in your stack. How much do you bet?
Now, if we’re totally risk averse, we simply go all in with our near-nut hand and if we’re called, we’ve maximized our value– anyone calling is probably making a monstrous mistake (unless they’ve already got us beat or have a monster straight flush draw). But our opponents are probably not likely to make such a big mistake, so most of the time the only time we’re called here is if we’re beat.
If we know our gambling theory, we bet out an amount that encourages our opponent to make a smaller mistake. In this case, a pot-sized bet gives a flush draw 2:1 odds on making their 4:1 flush on the next card. This is a pretty big mistake over the long run, and one our opponents are much more likely to make than calling a huge overbet on a draw. Of course, we’ll lose 25% of the time when our opponent calls and makes their flush on the turn, but 75% of the time we get to extract more money from our opponent with another pot sized bet on the turn. This doesn’t include times we’ll be raised by one of the 3 opponents who acts after us.
Monstrous overbets violate gambling theory, in the sense that no intelligent gambler will call such a bet unless he already has you beat. Good gambling (and good poker) encourages smaller mistakes that add up in the long run. I think some of the reason for all of the overbetting I see is that many people learned to play No-Limit in tournaments, where the all-in is often a correct play, and in short-stack (33 big bets or less) No Limit cash games, where you’re often pot committed on the flop.
To me, deep stack No-Limit holdem is at it’s best when the all-in is used as a weapon to put people to the test– on hands where there’s a lot of money in the pot, the overbet can be used to force our opponent to ask, “Why would he overbet like that? Is he trying to steal the pot or does he really have me beat?” This is the difference between no-limit and pot-limit, and it’s what makes the game so great. Betting 100 big bets to win 4 or 5, however, turns the game into a “wait-for-the-nuts” contest with little skill involved.
On Overbetting Bots
Speaking of overbets, I found this series of 2+2 posts on an all-in-or-fold bot enthralling (thanks to 92o for the link).
My two favorite comments:

  • 23 blinks is correct, but at lower levels he folds in 9-11 blinks.
  • This morning I watched him/it go from 6 Players left $1100 in level 4 – to taking First Place by doing nothing more that fold or go all-in preflop.
    It reminded me so much of my own game I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or puke…

On the WSOP
I’m taking a few small shots at qualifying for both the June 2nd event and the main event, but nothing serious. I think it would be a great experience, but for anyone to think that they are going to be the lucky person to win this event is a bit too much. I’m all for hopes and dreams, but with the main event expected to be 6600 deep, that puts me at 2200:1 even if I think I’m better than 2/3rd of the field (not likely). Even if I’m better than 5/6th of the field, that puts me at 1100:1… hitting runner-runner perfect cards is 800:1 if my memory serves me correctly.
That said, it would be a great experience to play in either of the two events. But probably just too expensive an experience for me. So I’ll try to win my way in a couple times and hope for the best.
On the Online Poker Industry
Most everybody has probably seen this site already, but many people don’t look very deeply into what’s there. PokerPulse has a wealth of information about the various online poker rooms, and it really lives up to it’s name– it really gives you the Pulse of online poker. I’m not going to go into detail, but if you click around a bit you will find some very interesting numbers. Nothing to do with Poker, but if you’re interested in the Online Poker industry it’s worth checking out.
On poker books
I’m halfway through Dan Harrington’s excellent first book. Well written and well-thought out, the book takes you through the thought processes of one of the best No-Limit tournament players in the world.
After I put Action Dan on the shelf, I plan on reading Matt Matros’ new book. If you’re having doubts about the book, this page convinced me to buy it– I think it’s the best analysis of a hand I’ve ever seen.
If you’re planning on playing 15-30 limit poker anytime soon, I highly recommend Ciaffone’s Middle Limit hold em book. It’s probably the toughest poker book I’ve read, but also the most rewarding. Lots of subtle and advanced concepts are hammered home by “the coach.” Be prepared for some deep thought before picking up this book.
That’s it for now. Hope you found something of interest in these ramblings. Poker content to come soon. Thanks for reading.

Brotherhood of Beats

“Unless man is committed to the belief that all mankind are his brothers, then he labors in vain and hypocritically in the vineyards of equality.”
–Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Still nothing exciting going on in Poker World for yours truly these days, but I thought I’d throw up a quick post to see if I still remember how to blog.
Back when I considered myself a real poker player, I would play for at least an hour every night, and usually end up sitting for 2 hours. Part of this was because I was relatively unsatisfied with my job, and my time at the tables provided me with a chance to stretch my mind a bit after work. But these days work is both challenging and rewarding, and grinding it out for a couple hours just doesn’t seem as attractive (and for all 500 of you that have emailed me: yes, Full Tilt hand histories are on the way). I’m the type of person that if I don’t feel committed to something, I don’t feel comfortable doing it “halfway.”
But I have been dabbling (uncomfortably) here and there, especially in this no limit stuff. I have to say I thoroughly prefer limit– I like the idea of making many smaller-but-somewhat-difficult decisions over the course of a couple hours than making one or two very-big-and-very-difficult decisions over a two hour period. No limit poker to me seems like much more of a grind than limit, especially since it’s much more difficult to multitable in No-Limit world, where you have to pay much closer attention to individual players.
Things were going pretty well for me in No-Limit land until the following hand came up (warning: hand history coming):
Tight-aggressive game, I get 75o in the BB. Aggressive player in early position min-raises, one caller, and I throw in an extra $5 hoping to flop big and bust somebody on a big flop.
Flop is Ad 7c 5d with two diamonds. Bingo. I check, aggressive player leads out and bets the pot, limper bails, and I double his bet. He calls, and the turn comes a diamond. The turn is the wonderful 7d, and I check, hoping he made his flush. He instantly goes all in, and I happily call, ready to rake the biggest pot of my life. I’m shocked when he turns over black queens, and as long as I can dodge the horrible 2 outer, I will have some retirement money.
I actually wasn’t very upset when the Queen came on the river.
A few weeks later, I’m beginning to grow a little frustrated as my opponents continue to hit two-outers when all the money is in on a regular basis. I think I’ve counted 10 times in the past couple weeks when I’ve lost all-ins and my opponent has had 3 outs or less. I’m actually happy when my opponent catches a 5 or 6 outer these days, although there have been plenty of times I’ve lost as a 90% favorite.
But that’s poker, and that’s why we have a bankroll.
I had the pleasure of hanging with Grubby, StudioGlyphic, and Absinthe & Mrs. Absinthe last night before a field trip to the wild No-Limit tables at Hollywood Park. We also managed to catch Wil Wheaton in a sketch comedy show before poker. I won’t say much about the show, except that I was more on tilt after the first 30 minutes than I was after getting two-outered by Queens. Approaching mega-tilt, I whispered to Grubby “can you think of anything we can bet on?” halfway through the show, but (luckily?) he either ignored me or didn’t hear me (I’m betting on the latter).
The company and the conversation was refreshing, however. I have to give credit to the LA bloggers (Grubby will be moving here soon, methinks, so he now counts as an “LA blogger” in my book) for their taste in movies and music. I hate this town, but it’s comforting to know there are a few people who care about something other than J-Lo.
Anyway, poker at the Park featured a series of bad beats. Studio took a couple horrendous beats, one coming on the river after the call of the night (AA vs. a very scary broadway board). I actually lost an all in to a One outer (after losing to 2 and 4 outers earlier). Didn’t get to sit with Absinthe (he told me he lost an all in as a 4:1 favorite), but I played with Grubby most of the night, and didn’t see him get bad beat the entire night. See Grubs, you’re not the unluckiest person in the universe…
A while back, Halverson 3K wrote about how much more interesting the “deep-stack” (where max buy in = 100 big bets) No-Limit games are, and I can’t agree more. At the Park, the blinds are 2-3, and max buy-in is $100. 33 big bets is all you get, and most of the time at least 2 players at the table have $300 or more. This means the default raise is 3 chips ($15) or 4 chips ($20), which represents 1/5th of the player who just bought in for $100. If you call and miss, you are down to $80, leaving you with 26 BBs. So, either you double up early and dominate the game, or sit and wait while big stacks raise you out of every pot. Remind me not to play this game.
Ok, enough whining. Go buy this if you haven’t yet, I promise it’s worth the $20. I leave you with what I think is the most important information to know in No-Limit tournaments: