Ok, I know a lot of people have chalked this blog up to being dead, but I’m still here. I have some good stuff saved up over the last couple of months, but for now you’ll have to hold on to some of my favorite quotes from the most quotable boxer of all time.
“I run on the road, long before I dance under the lights.”
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ”Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'”
“Age is whatever you think it is. You are as old as you think you are.”
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
Muhammad Ali

The Phoenix Riddle Hath More Wit By Us

“Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix.”
–Christina Baldwin
My old friend Iggy has often written, “In poker, stasis = death.” Loyal readers have noticed that this blog has been both dead and static lately, but the times they are a changin’. There is a lot of change around the corner for yours truly, and hopefully these changes can resurrect both this blog and my poker play, which has been sparse recently due to my committment to my job.
old dylan
I’m not going to get into details at the moment, but a big geographical move is around the corner. I’m hoping that an escape from a 7 year sentence in the Los Angeles area (3 in the OC and 4 more in LA proper) will soothe my soul and clear my thought-polluted brain.
The big change to this blog is that you’ll be hearing from a new voice, my best friend from forever and ex-protege, Monk. He’s come a long way since his first guest post in August of 2004, grinding it out professionally for the last year and a half. He’ll be posting his wisdom here on a regular basis so I won’t say too much about him, but I will say that he is a warrior at the poker table, and I admire his tenacity. Unlike me, he is a real online pro, and if he doesn’t win, he doesn’t eat, so his perspective on the game is much different than mine.
There have been plenty of rough patches for him along the way, but maybe the moment that has given me the most joy in my “poker life” was seeing this:

That’s his name up there as the winner of the Full Tilt Poker $200K guarantee.
More from Monk to come soon.
But enough about change, let’s get back to what this blog is all about– thinking about poker. Although I haven’t been putting in the hours on the felt, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the game. And of course, collecting data. Thanks to some new tools, I’ve been able to accumulate lots of data on some of the “regulars” in the higher limit games at Party Poker (mostly $30-$60).
I keep waiting for someone else to do the data analysis for me, but I’ve yet to see anyone break down the Poker Tracker numbers on a big hand history database and offer up some statistical poker wisdom. Maybe there are some folks out there in the process of crunching the numbers, but until then, I’m going to have to do it myself.
The Shape of a Winning Online Poker Player
I dabbled in a bit of horse racing handicapping recently, and while it had a much different flavor than my old econometrics classes, the method was very similar. In econometrics, the economist basically takes a glob of numbers and figures out the meaningful patterns in these numbers. The “figuring out” requires both an expert knowledge of statistical techniques, and more importantly, knowledge and experience in the domain being analyzed. In handicapping a horse race, the expert takes in the data from various input (e.g. The Daily Racing Form, Past Performances, etc.) and determines the “shape” of the race– the expert can visualize the way the race will play out based on knowledge of what the statistics mean and his experience with the relationship between the statistics and past race outcomes.
Aside: In fact, I think that the difference in ability to make sense of, or “filter”, sensory data (primarily visual and cognitive) differentiates the best poker players in the world. Basically, Phil Ivey is an expert at stripping away the useless sensory data and focusing on the information that reveals the type of hand his opponent holds. But that’s a topic for another post…
For a long time, I’ve wondered if there is some statistical commonality between winning poker players. I think that many different styles can be successful for different players– some players are tight aggressive winners, and some get bored playing that style and can only succeed as loose aggressive players. But the numbers never lie– what if there was some common statistic that all winning players shared? What if there was something hidden in the mess of data that might clue one in to some optimal way of playing poker?
To extract the wisdom of the statistics gathered from millions of hand histories… To “mine” the poker knowledge contained in every hand played by good and bad players…
I’ve started on this path, and although I don’t think I’ve found any diamonds yet, the mining has just begun. For now, I’m hoping a surface-level investigation of the data will reveal some interesting patterns and lead me to better questions.
Before we get into the asking and answering of questions, let me fill you in on the basic characteristics of the data:

  • All hands come from Party Poker, $15/$30 Fixed Limit or above, where there were at least 7 players in the hand
  • For now, I’m limiting the analysis to players with more than 4,000 hands observed– this leaves us with 115 players, a relatively small sample, but large enough to make some reasonable conclusions
  • Data collection began on April 26th, so it is safe to assume that the majority of the players in the analysis are “pros,” since observing over 4K hands for a single player means they were playing nearly every day for several hours

Question 1: How many of these “pros” are winners?
We’d have to guess that significantly more than half of the players with over 4,000 hands in a relatively short period of time are winners– if they play that much, they definitely have the discipline to grind it out, an attribute usually correlated with winning. Also, they are still playing, which means they didn’t go broke.
Answer: 68 winners (59%), 47 losers (41%)
37% of the 68 winners made more than 2 big bets per 100, and 59% made more than 1 big bet per 100, suggesting that these folks are making a nice hourly rate (nearly all of the players in the sample were $30/$60 players).
As suspected, the grinders are grinding out a nice win rate, and most of the winners are making between 1 and 2 bb/100. This fits with the Sklanskyish estimates of win rate in reasonably tough games.
Question 2: How much are the winners winning and the losers losing?
Answer: 57% of all players won between 0 and 2 big bets per 100 hands.

The histogram shows that although most winners fall in the 0-2 bb/100 range, 11 (10%) of the 115 players were “big winners,” winning at least 3 big bets per 100 hands. The average number of hands per table hour in this group was 70, so if these players are 4 tabling, that puts their true win rate at $432 per hour. The query for true win rate is a bit hard to formulate, so I’ll save that one for later.
Among losers, 14 players (30%) lost more than 1 big bet per 100, and 11 of these lost more than 2 big bets per 100, compared to 22 players who won more than 2 big bets per 100. Not surprisingly, the losers either stop playing or drop down in limits, while the winners don’t go anywhere.
Question 3: How tight are the winners playing (more specifically, what percentage of hands are they voluntarily putting money in the pot with)?
Answer: 61% of the winners were between 15% and 21% VPIP.

The above shows that playing tight works well in the Party $30-$60, but it isn’t the only way to win. The top 3 winners in dollar amount won all had a vpip% of 20%. “Tight is right” theorists point to the 4th leading winner by dollar amount, who had a VPIP% of 15% (and a win rate of 1.66 bb/100), meaning he plays premium hands only. Those who advocate looser play look to the 6th leading winner in dollar amount won, with a VPIP% of 29% and a win rate of 2.8 bb/100.
Question 4: How much do the winners raise before the flop?
Answer: 60% raised pre-flop between 10% and 13% of the time.

Comparing the pre-flop raise % with the VPIP above shows us that the majority of winning players nearly always come into the pot with a raise. I haven’t run the query to check for this, but since the average vpip% for winners exceeds the average pfr% by only 6%, it is clear that most of the hands played are for a raise. When you factor in blind defense, it’s evident that most winners rarely limp or call raises preflop, but nearly always raise.
Question 5: How often do the winners win when they show down a hand?
Answer: 59% of winners were in the 51% to 57% range.

This statistic always interested me, because it’s a strong indicator of style. A player who shows down a lot of bluffs is going to get paid off more often, and possibly win bigger pots than the average non-bluffing player. Conversely, a weak-tight player is going to win more often when they do show down, but probably isn’t going to show down very often. While I think that this statistic is relatively useless for the most part, the major point is that winners win only slightly more than half the time they show down a hand.
So what does it all mean?
While I’m just scratching the surface, I think the above statistics tell us that:

  • Most of the pros at $30-$60 are doing quite well
  • A small percentage of players are killing the game, and a smaller percentage are getting killed
  • A win rate of 1 bb/100 puts you in the top 37% of winning grinders at this level
  • Most winners put money in voluntarily around 20% of the time
  • Most winners raise around 12% of the time, and rarely come into a pot without raising
  • Most winners take the pot slightly more than half the time they show down a hand

Good luck out there– if anyone has any hand histories at the $15-$30 level or above that they’d like to contribute, contact me via email or leave a comment. Your player name and the players in the database will never be released or revealed, and the data provided will never be resold, but will be used for research purposes only. Your help would be much appreciated.

Learning to Beat the Game

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

–William Shakespeare

Once again, it’s been forever since I last posted. The last couple months have been a tough grind as my compadres and I at the best online poker site out there have been camping out at the office. It’s been a bit of a dark period for me, as it’s the only time in my life that I can remember where I’ve directed my focus to a single activity– my job. I like what I do, but there is definitely a hole left by my lack of activity in other things that I’m passionate about.

Luckily I’ve been able to take a step back recently and work my way back to the poker tables. It took me a few sessions to shake the rust off my game, but I think I’m back in the swing of things. The focus required at the tables was good medicine for my work-addled mind, and I was reminded just how complicated Hold ‘Em can be. The online games are slightly tougher than they were a couple months ago, but there is still plenty of EV to be theoretically pocketed. The local live games are better than ever– in a 4 hour session at the Hustler last night, a regular Joe gambler at my table made 100 big bets. He had so many racks stacked up on the table that he actually could hide behind them when someone tried to get a read on him.

Since I haven’t been actually playing much poker in the last couple months, but have been surrounded by the game in one way or another, I’ve developed a strange perception of the game. My job requires that I spend a lot more time looking at poker players from the inside, so sitting down at the tables affords me the chance to look at the game from the outside. I guess it’s been somewhat like reading a lot of poker books and learning about the odds and mechanics of the game, and then finally sitting down at the table to apply them. Watching the patterns of the online poker world for any prolonged period of time gives you a new perspective when you participate in one of the single data points that composes the pattern.

When I thought about how I might package up these observations in a blog post, I was reminded of one of my favorite posts of all time. Back in 1999, a couple of sharp young hold ’em players were challenging conventional wisdom, frequently battling well-known poker academics and winning. Abdul Jalib and Izmet Fekali used computers, courage, and humor to change the way that people thought about hold ’em.

When I was first learning how to play, I came across something that Izmet had written that I felt captured the spirit of the winning hold ’em player, as well as some great rules for a poker player to live by. This post should be read by every poker player planning on playing poker on a regular basis. The post is fittingly called, “Learning To Win.”

Here are some of Izmet’s words of wisdom that have resonated with me:

On Book Learning:
But, the best material BY FAR can be found in past archives. Go to and take it from there. Some rgp posters are pretty smart, some are blissful morons, it’s up to you to figure out who is who. By doing this, the game will soon start making sense to you. Make your own conclusions, build your own strategy. Listen to everyone. Trust no one. Read rgp FAQ, it’s a good starting point for finding more information.

On Fundamentals:
Play, play, play. When starting out, play a solid straightforward game, do not waste time with bluffs, slowplays, banks, good laydowns. Do not let them push you off your hand if you started good. Fight. Fight with raises, not calls. Learn when to run. When there’s a good (but not 100%) chance of holding the best hand, throw your chips at opponents like there’s no tomorrow. Aim for the forehead with a solid swing. Let them fear you.

On thinking at the table:
When raised, stop, think, reevaluate. A raise is an incoming message. What is the sender trying to communicate? Does he have something to say or has he just pressed a wrong button at the wrong time? Bets and calls are often automatic, not so with raises. When in doubt, fold. If you like winning, you’ll have to do lots of folding. Flee and live to tell.

On reading players:
Try to know your players. The correct poker move at any point is a function of the opponents. What are their tendencies, what are their motives, what are their habits? Who is the best player at the table? Who are the suckers? Who is having fun? Who is losing? Who is the village idiot? Who seems always to flip over a solid hand at the showdown? Who hit a gutshot-gutshot straight on the river? Who will you run from, who can you run over?

On motivation:
Examine your motives for playing. Some people play for money, some for fun, some for the excitement, some for the punishment. These are all valid reasons to play poker. Respect the losers, they have their own reasons for playing. They are usually getting what they need from the game. It’s OK to be a loser if that is what you need (I’m not speaking with tongue-in-cheek here, this is a fact. Self punishment is the underlying reason for most weird behavior in life). If so, be a loser in moderation.

On Bankroll:
Build a bankroll. Treat it as a funny money. Have enough to withstand challenges of fate. Do not spend the winnings. After a while, if the game is good to you, buy yourself something out of the bankroll. A shiny gambler’s watch maybe. A little token of pride. A mark of achievement. You will feel good about yourself, that’s never a bad thing.

On one long session:
Be comfortable at the tables at all times. If not, leave. The game of poker never breaks it just suspends for a moment. You can return whenever you are ready again. Take a fresh start. Maybe a kiss from a woman in love is all you need to come back with a vengeance. There are no blinds to worry about when away from the tables.


In tribute to Izmet and an attempt to capture the subtle discoveries I’ve made in the last few months, here is my advice on how you can beat the game.

  • The first step to becoming a successful player is understanding the basic theory behind gambling. So many poker players seem to be clueless on such basic ideas such as variance, expected value, and probability in general. I hear so many beginning players complaining about the fish and how it’s impossible to win because their pocket Aces got cracked by some garbage hand. Newsflash: Pocket Aces lose to 72o 13% of the time! That means that if somebody calls your pre-flop all in when you have Aces you are almost 7:1 to win– great odds, but you’re still going to take a bad beat 1 out of 10 times. If you’re going to play poker to win, you have to understand the basic concepts behind gambling.
  • Realize the flavor of the game. This applies mostly to live poker, but it can be applied to the online game as well. Each game has a different spirit to it, a different reason for existence. The spirit of the game should affect not only your approach to the game, but your style of play as well. The homegame that I host is a chance for my friends and I to get together and celebrate our friendship and our mutual passion for poker. It is not a place to build your bankroll and see 15% of the flops. The $25-50 game at the Hustler is not a collection of poker professionals fighting over the blinds– it’s a place where wealthy LA residents can have a night out and win or lose a little money. Understanding the flavor of the game will not only help you get a read on what’s going on in the game, it will help you enjoy the game a lot more. When a real estate king sucks out on your set with a runner runner flush, it is much easier to accept the outcome when you understand his motivation.
  • Understand that long term success at poker requires a lot of hard work. Like most jobs, achieving success in poker requires effort, concentration, and study. It took Howard Lederer (one of the smartest all-around people I have met) 12 years of study and play before he felt he had mastered the game and could succeed at the $200-$400 game. If you aren’t willing to memorize odds, focus on your game, and continually evaluate your play, then you aren’t going to succeed in poker at a high level. For most people, poker is a recreational experience, and long term success is not a primary goal for them. For those who want to succeed at poker, you need to work at it. It’s not always fun to review your performance and critique your play, but in order to improve your game, it’s a necessity.
  • Performance is directly proportional to your ability to concentrate at the table. As you move up the limits in poker, your edge against your opponents decreases, and your “poker knowledge” no longer exceeds that of your opponents. If you can “out-concentrate” your opponents on every single hand, you can give yourself a significant edge in the long run. If your superior concentration gives you a 5% edge on every hand, this gives you a significant advantage over your opponents over the course of the session.
  • Come to the poker table to play. Whatever your reason for playing, poker is a game that is most enjoyed when you’re able to focus on the game rather than what happened at work today or what you have to do tomorrow. It’s much easier to fold a mediocre hand to a tight raise when you have a clear head and can think clearly. If you are serious about poker, create a mindset where you know that while you are at the tables, you won’t allow yourself to be distracted by anything. Being “in” the game fully is almost like meditation.
  • Have faith in your game and yourself. The most difficult thing for any poker player is to accept that perfect performance can sometimes result in poor results in the short run. A successful player is able to determine when the poor results are a product of bad luck or of mistakes in judgment. Believe that you are better than your opponents– you study more, think about the game more, and perform better than they do.
  • And most of all, remember that poker is a game. Whatever your reasons for playing, it’s important to remember that poker was created to amuse people. Win or lose, if you’re not having fun, than there are plenty of other things you can do to amuse yourself.

World Poker Domination and Bankroll Considerations

“It’s important that someone celebrate our existence… People are the only mirror we have to see ourselves in.”
–Lois McMaster Bujold
Now that’s what I call a hiatus. It’s been two months since I last posted here, and it feels much longer than that. The main reason for the lack of updates is that I don’t have all that much to say about poker these days. Most likely that’s because I feel like I haven’t had the time to relax and let my mind bounce off all of the input and process it into something more interesting. Working too many hours leaves me with little time to even get a good night’s sleep, let alone play poker. Luckily, I have a group of great people who come to my house and force me to think about poker: the weekly Friday night home game has kept my game from deteriorating completely. It makes me somewhat sad that the intensity and regularity of my poker play is a far cry from what it once was, but I know I’ll get back to it when I get more time.
Hail to the Victors
Speaking of the homegame, one of “our own” hit it big… check out Ryan’s account of how he beat 1,148 players to win the opening LAPC event to win over $100,000. It made me giddy just typing that, but Ryan’s success is no accident. Consistently the toughest player in the homegame, I have always envied Ryan’s ability to take every hand seriously, and bring complete focus and awareness to every Friday game (no matter what absurdities were occurring around him). Where I will sometimes take a hand off or get caught up with a story or joke being told, Ryan seems to keep his concentration at all times.
To illustrate this, I quote from his blog from a home game long ago:
“Last week I got so dehydrated that I was verging on heat stroke and had to throw up in the main bathroom’s blissfully cool porcelain masterpiece of a toilet. Yeah, yeah. You can laugh all you want, motherfuckers, because I did not miss a hand.”
Not only did he not miss a hand, but he played the next hand just as well as he usually does.
Awareness, focus, and concentration. Congratulations Ryan, I couldn’t think of someone who deserves victory more.
(amusing side note: Ryan consistently outplays most people in the homegame, but somehow always manages to suffer horrible beats and many undeserved losing nights. For those of you who think short-term results matter, please take note.)
And that’s not all… Factgirl beat out 700 players in best online poker site‘s $16K guarantee to take down over $4K in prize money. And she took most of my chips in an appearance at Friday’s homegame and cruised to a victory chop. Congrats, Facty, without your careful study of the game, victory would not be yours.
Observations from outside the aquarium
Despite relatively little time actually playing poker, I have been spending a lot of time observing the online poker world from outside the fishbowl, and have gained some perspective on the types of people that play poker. We spend a lot of time thinking about what online poker players want, and how to give it to them… we put something out there, and then use the feedback data to determine if we were right or wrong. It helps to have co-workers are a group of the smartest people you’ve ever met, and happen to be serious poker players. My assumptions about online poker players are challenged daily, and are consistently being refined by the sharpest minds in poker.
The most important lesson I’ve learned in the past couple months is that the biggest difference between players at middle limits and above is the relationship between a poker player and his bankroll. While players often overvalue hands and have minor differences in skill, the biggest difference I see among players is their attitude about winning and losing money.
Personally, I feel like I grew into my bankroll– in Los Angeles, the $15-30 games aren’t all that much different than the $3-6 games online, so skill and bankroll have strange proportions in the city of angels. While my poker skills were ready for the $15-30 games in terms of skill, mentally it was very difficult to accept the variance that comes at that level, and downswings took their toll mentally. Luckily I come from a good statistical background, and my start as a card counter helped me understand and accept these downswings.
But these days my bankroll is pretty healthy, and variance is a good friend of mine… or at least I understand her pretty well. It is one thing to accept the idea that you are going to have 100 big bet downswings every once in a while, and another thing to have gone through it a few times. Believing in statistical theory requires supreme confidence that you are a better poker player than those you play against– not an easy thing during your first 100 bet downswing. But if you are a consistent winner night after night, it’s much easier to shake off a few losing sessions.
A simpler way to say this is:
Losing hurts more when it makes you question your poker skill.
Understanding your opponent’s relationship with his bankroll can sometimes help you determine the correct play against that opponent. For example, a recreational player who is happy to lose a few hundred bucks for a night of fun is more likely to call your value bet on the river with a weak hand “just to see what you have”.
Below is an attempt to categorize the most common player-bankroll relationships that I have come across. I’m sure these types apply to online players, but it’s probably impossible to figure out who’s who unless you can see what your opponents look like.
Guide to poker bankroll types
1. The recreational gambler
DESCRIPTION: This player has set aside a certain amount of cash that he is willing to lose in the cardroom that day. If he loses, then he chalks it up as the cost of a night out. If he wins, he will most likely buy something with his winnings, rather than put them towards a poker bankroll. This player often shows up after payday, with the goal of having fun and maybe getting lucky. The recreational gambler is here to gamble in the purest sense of the word.
PLAYING STYLE: Likely to call you down with weak holdings and gamble “on the come”. Plays fast and loose when losing or winning, but even faster and looser when winning. This type of player pays the wages of the professionals and is extremely common in LA.
2. The high roller
DESCRIPTION: This player has an unlimited bankroll and is usually retired and looking for a good time. The high roller is often a regular in the highest stakes game in the casino, and losing or winning money has minimal effect on his psyche.
PLAYING STYLE: Usually extremely aggressive, attempts to use unlimited bankroll to push players off of a hand. The high roller issues the unspoken challenge, “If you’re going to play a pot with me, it’s going to be expensive”. High rollers can also be calling stations who play every hand. Games are built around these players, as they are happy to donate to the game regularly.
3. The gentleman gambler
DESCRIPTION: This player is skilled, and has a great deal of experience at the table. Not a regular, but shows up at the cardroom every couple of weeks. Often older and retired, these players enjoy a night of competition and matching wits with his opponents. This player hates to lose, but not because of the money.
PLAYING STYLE: The gentleman gambler is a tough opponent, and usually plays only good starting hands. Tends to be overly tight, so you can usually put him on a relatively narrow range of hands. This player does not like to lose to “garbage” hands, and may begin overplaying hands when his opponents are beating him.
4. Scared money
DESCRIPTION: This player is a solid player at a limit below the limit he is playing, but is playing at a limit where a loss will put a serious dent in his bankroll. You can often find this player when a higher-limit game has one or two high rollers in the game.
PLAYING STYLE: Weak tight, this player will usually “pick a hand and go with it”. As a heads-up 6 big bet pot may represent a 12 big bet pot in his normal game, it is often difficult for him to get away from the hand.
5. The properly bankrolled player
DESCRIPTION: This player is unhampered by financial considerations, as a losing session will have minimum effect on him financially.
PLAYING STYLE: Solid, plays optimally to his skill level if not on tilt.
6. The overly bankrolled player
DESCRIPTION: Solid player, but playing at a level where his win rate is significantly less than his hourly wage. Much like the high roller, financial losses have absolutely no effect on this player. This player takes the game seriously, and believes that he should “work his way up” through the limits before playing at a level where losses might cause minor financial pain.
PLAYING STYLE: Since this player takes poker seriously, losses will often have a strong emotional affect on the player. If this type of player goes on tilt, they are likely to try to run over the table like the high roller.
Many poker players spend extensive amounts of time thinking about the game, but little time considering the way that their bankroll affects their play. I think that at the higher limits, bankroll considerations are often the biggest difference among players. Understanding how much money you are really willing to lose at the poker table without having serious financial consequences is an important and underrated part of serious poker.

Poker and Emotion

“The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray, and the advantage of science is that it is not emotional.”
–Oscar Wilde
Aloha loyal readers… I’ve spent the last three weeks recovering from a vicious cold, although I did play quite a bit of live poker. The homegame has taken on a near-mythical quality, after the invention of a new game and some ridiculously improbable occurences. I’ve been using my live play to try to hone my people-reading skills, and every once in a while have been able to enter the poker zone where “the cards don’t matter,” and my confidence in how a player will react to a bet is high enough that I’ve been able to steal some big pots.
Luck has been on my side as well– I was able to win my first tournament at the Golden Nugget a couple weeks ago (a 57 player tourney at midnight) after getting all my money in early with A9 and spiking a 9 after my loose opponent called my re-raise with AQ. After that I played some of my best poker and won enough coin flips to make it to the final 3 players, where we chopped the prize money evenly 3 ways.
After the tournament I thought about how many coin flips I had to win and just how lucky a person has to be just to make it to the final table of any tournament. I also thought about how different I was than players like Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth, who wear their heart on their sleeve and play poker with extreme emotion. The connection between emotion and the way we live our lives has intrigued me for a long time– in high school some of my friends called me “the computer” because they said it was rare that I showed any outward sign of emotion. But someone who knew me pretty well believed that I was far more emotional than your average person. I’m still not sure what to believe, but I do know that for better or worse, there is relatively little emotion in my poker game. So I thought an exploration of emotion in poker might warrant an attempt…
Emotion and Poker
Main Entry: emo•tion
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French, from emouvoir to stir up, from Old French esmovoir, from Latin emovEre to remove, displace, from e- + movEre to move
1. A mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort and is often accompanied by physiological changes; a feeling: the emotions of joy, sorrow, reverence, hate, and love.
2. A state of mental agitation or disturbance: spoke unsteadily in a voice that betrayed his emotion.
3. The part of the consciousness that involves feeling; sensibility: “The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect” (Isaac Bashevis Singer).
Traditional poker wisdom has said that emotion has no place in poker. Frustration, anger, and other “negative” emotions that can lead one to a mental state outside the one designed to make logical poker decisions can be harmful for the bankroll.
So how can one of the most successful poker tournament players in history be one of the most emotional players on the circuit? How can Phil Hellmuth consistently perform well in tournaments, despite consistently achieveing a “state of mental agitation” whenever the cards do not fall in his favor? How can Mike Matusow, who puts Hamlet’s insanity act to shame every time the cameras are rolling, be one of the most successful tournament players in the past two months? Is it possible that “emotional poker players” have an edge in tournament poker?
In order to answer this question, we need to break down the most common reasons people get emotional at the poker table.
1. Frustration with results
The most common display of emotion among poker players occurs when they encounter a negative result (not surprisingly, positive results are more often welcomed by relative stoicism, unless your name is Mattias Andersson). When a player makes the statistically correct play and loses the pot, there is a greater amount of frustration than when they fail to suck out on a better hand. This type of frustration most likely results from the fundamental belief that if you make the right decision, you will be rewarded with a positive result. While this belief holds true in many situations in life, it does not take the role of luck into account. Pocket deuces beat pocket aces nearly 1 out of every 5 times, so the underdog is going to win a lot more times than one would expect if they don’t know the odds.
Those that become frustrated when a result doesn’t match performance have a fundamental misunderstanding of gambling theory. The thing that baffles me is that some of the best players in the world still get angry when the cards don’t fall their way. If “there was no luck in this game,” it wouldn’t be much of a game– a bunch of professionals pushing razor thin edges until the house ends up the only winner.
One would think that someone who has an emotional connection to a bad result might be more likely to avoid risks that would end in frustration or anger. In other words, emotional players would be more likely to sit and wait for the nuts, as they have been negatively reinforced to avoid bad beats. This would suggest that emotional players are more likely to survive than those who see no emotional downside to losing their money when they are a favorite.
Personally, I think that survival is overrated in a tournament– even the best players have a relatively small chance to win a tournament, so players like Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu achieve success by pushing thier small edges at every chance they have. However, it seems that the greater the number of players capable of making hopeless plays, the greater the advantage for the player who focuses on “survival.” No need to take weighted coin flips when players will bluff their chips off to you with Ace high.
2. Frustration with performance
The second most common display of negative emotion among poker players is frustration or anger at their performance. This most frequently takes the form of the statement “I know better” or “I should have known,” and frequently occurs when a player goes against his or her instincts, or the opposite case, when the player lets odds win out over instincts and makes the incorrect play. This one hits closer to home for me, as I tend to be pretty hard on myself for mental mistakes. Example (limit poker): loose player raises in middle position, I defend my blind with Q9o or the like. Flop comes AQ4, and by the odds our second pair is probably good against loose guy, whose hand range is pretty wide. We check and call, resolved that we are way ahead or way behind, and he’ll bluff off his chips with a hand like TT. Turn comes an Ace, making it less likely that he is holding an Ace, but when he bets the turn our gut tells us he’s got the ace. I’ll usually be Math guy here and call him down, and usually end up frustrated when loose guy shows me the ace.
While this form of negative emotion seems more productive than results-based emotion (you can correct your incorrect decision, but you have no control over the way the cards fall), it can still make for poor play. People tend to remember emotional experiences, and remembering when a player outplays you might cause one to overcompensate for a previous call or raise, and make the incorrect play. Following the above idea that players who have strong negative emotion based on poor performance, the emotional player will attempt to play their best at all times, and avoid the negative emotion that comes with making an incorrect decision.
Using the above line of reasoning, it’s possible that negative emotional experiences based on performance can help one to remember the bad plays and improve upon them in similar future situations.
3. “Injustice”
Most bad beat stories end in a punch line of, “You’ll never guess what he had” or some similar phrase summing up the unbelievably bad play of the fishy bad beat administrator. A common source of frustration and anger is the injustice of the poker gods: the unlucky protagonist will lose on the river when he is a 90% favorite, and become frustrated when his clueless opponent achieves better results than he does. The mighty protagonist has studied for countless hours and considers himself a very good player, and when his opponent makes a poor play he feels the injustice of the game– knowledge and skill cannot defeat luck in poker, and this leads to frustration on the part of the player defeated by luck. This type of emotional response is similar to the two responses described above, but the frustration experienced by the “good player” is often directed at the poor player (“you can’t even spell poker”) or perhaps the poker gods (“I can never win a race”).
This frustration may lead to self-doubt, or questioning the value of the game of poker. An understanding of gambling theory can help deal with this type of frustration, but I think that emotions that force introspection and questioning usually end up being productive.
It’s hard for me to identify with guys like Hellmuth and Matusow, but their results argue that emotion doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on tournament finishes. On a personal level, I try to take joy in good performance, and try not to beat myself up too much for poor performance. Without some measure of emotion, you might as well be a poker bot.
In answer to the question, “Do emotional poker players have an advantage in tournament poker?” I think the jury is still out. Plenty of players who don’t outwardly display emotion (Lederer, Greenstein, Ivey) have had better results than anyone, but “emotional players” have had their share of victories as well. My gut tells me that emotion might give a player a little edge somewhere, but I can’t quite work it out. The emotional player has more at stake in a way, and higher stakes may result in better play.
Or maybe they’re just goofballs who catch cards.