Monday, July 31, 2006

Fingering Those Four-Flushers (Redux)

Shamus hits the booksThat problem I discussed in my previous post continues to linger in my mind. Ran into the same situation more than once over the last couple of days of play. For example, had a hand where I was dealt AsQc in the cutoff and raised. Only one caller (the big blind). Flop comes Qh2d6h. He checks, I bet, he calls. Turn is the 7c. He checks, I bet, he calls. River is the 8h. He checks, I check, and he shows 4h4d. Don’t know if he’d have called a bet on the end, but given how he’d played the hand he probably would have as there would have been $6.25 in the pot. I won the hand but (likely) lost an extra big bet. I decided it was time to consult the experts about the problem.

David Sklansky has a chapter titled “Heads-Up On The End” in his The Theory of Poker where he addresses this very circumstance. The chapter is divided into “first position play” and “last position play.” Since the difficulty I face comes up most frequently when I am in last position, I reviewed what Sklansky had to say there.

He talks about those times when the last card comes and your opponent bets out and those times when your opponent checks to you. Now when I’m only holding top pair and that third heart appears, if my opponent bets out I’m definitely only going to call. That’s essentially what Sklansky recommends here -- he says to raise if I think I have a better hand or if I think my opponent is bluffing, but otherwise just to call. (Pot odds generally mean folding isn’t an option.) Since I usually don’t know if my opponent is bluffing in this situation, and since I also usually am not certain I have a better hand here, I call.

Now those times when my opponent checks to me on the end, Sklansky says “Bet your hand for value if you are a favorite,” but “don’t bet in close situations to avoid a check-raise.” As I’ve already established, I consider this a close situation, especially if multiple players saw the flop and only one or two of them decided to chase it to the river against me. So it appears Sklansky is here telling me that checking behind (as I have usually been doing) is probably a sound play.

It's important to note that Sklansky is offering only general guidelines in The Theory of Poker. For more particular advice about my game -- low limit hold ’em -- I go to Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth’s Small Stakes Hold ’em. In the back of the book they list a series of “Hand Quizzes,” and, in fact, the very last one closely resembles the “four-flusher” situation I’m investigating. In their example, you are dealt big slick on the button and two limpers call your raise. You flop a king (with two diamonds on the board), and so bet your top-pair, top-kicker. Both limpers check-call. The turn is a non-diamond blank, and both limpers again check-call. Then the river puts a third diamond on the board and your two opponents both check it to you.

This is precisely where I’ve almost always been checking down the hand, but Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth say this is a time to bet. Their reasoning is that “it is more likely that you are still ahead after your opponents check [on the river] than it is before they check.” It is also true that your opponent isn’t always going to check-raise you, even if he has hit his hand. They then add a “game theory”-type explanation that I’m not going to try to paraphrase here (see pp. 308-09 of SSHE, if'n yr innersted) that essentially says not betting here causes you to lose more bets in the long term than betting does.

I see how it is more likely that if my opponent(s) check to me in late position here -- as the fellow with the pocket fours did -- that I’m still ahead. Most who make their flush will indeed bet out on the end so as not to miss getting one more big bet on the river. Now that I think about it, I don’t recall that many instances where I check that hand down and then see my opponent has made his flush.

Every situation is different, of course, but I think I’ll probably be betting out here more often than I have been in the past. As Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth say, "Do not let every river card scare you. Bet!"

Photo: Tom Neal from the 1945 film Detour (adapted), public domain.

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fingering Those Four-Flushers

So you’re in an online game of limit hold ’em (6-max, $0.50/$1.00). Table’s on the loose side -- no surprise there. You’re UTG and get dealt big slick, AsKd. You raise and the button and both blinds call. There’s $4.00 in the pot when the flop comes 4hAc9h. You bet out and everyone calls. Now there’s $6.00 in the pot. The turn is the 6s, an apparent blank. You bet the $1.00, the button calls, and the blinds fold. The pot is now a handsome $8.00. Then comes the river . . . 2h. What do you do?

This scenario comes up very frequently in these games. If your opponent is sitting over there with two hearts, all of his postflop calls have been mathematically correct. On the flop he had 9-to-1 to call -- potentially 11-to-1 if the blinds also called, which they did. Even if one of the blinds check-raised here, he’d still be priced in to continue the chase. Then on the turn he had 7-to-1 to call, and although again there was a slight risk with two to act behind him, it would have been wrong to fold his draw here as well.

So how do you play it with your top pair, top kicker? In this situation, I’m often check-calling. I’m not folding, but I don’t want to give my opponent an extra big bet here on the river. Sometimes I’ll see his flush and kiss my $3.50 for the hand goodbye. Sometimes I’ll see he’s got Ad2d and has backed into aces up or some other hand that beats me. Rarely he’ll show something wacky like 3s5d and beat me with a runner-runner straight.

Then there are times when he shows down a middle or low pair, an ace-rag hand that didn’t spike a second pair, or a busted backdoor straight or some other garbage and I win the pot. In that case, I probably have won about all I can on the hand, although some suckers with middle pairs will go for the check-raise. Being out of position, though, I’m pretty comfortable with check-calling -- I might lose a bet or two on the end, but I’m saving more by not paying off the flushes.

Now switch the positions -- say you’re on the button and the one player who’s followed you all of the way to the river is UTG. The 2h comes and he checks. Now what? This is where I’m less confident about my play. When I bet out and he check-raises, I have to call (there’s $11.00 in the pot). When I check behind him and he shows that middle pair or ace-rag, I know that while I’ve taken down the pot I’ve likely lost a big bet. Having position -- which should be an advantage -- has hurt me, overall, because of the way I’ve been handling this common situation. (I haven’t checked through my Poker Tracker stats to prove this is the case, but my overwhelming impression is that I have not done as well in this situation as I could have.) The real question here is this: How does one tell whether or not one’s opponent is chasing a flush or not?

That term “four-flusher” comes up quite a bit in old noir films of the forties and fifties. (Click here to listen to an example.) It is one of many instances of the language of poker spilling over into that of “hard-boiled” narratives. The term refers to a faker or sham artist, someone who deceives. It derives from draw poker, where a player with four of a suit claims at hand’s end to have made his flush, quickly reveals his hand with the fifth, non-suited card obscured, and tries to scoop the pot. (Michael Wiesenberg actually discusses this term and a few others a bit in his latest CardPlayer column.)

One might reappropriate the term for online play to refer to the guy who represents a flush on the end even though he doesn’t have it -- the guy with the middle pair or ace-rag in my hypothetical who bets out after I’ve checked the river to him, or who has checked to me in that case where I have position. (In fact, sometimes the guttersnipe really does have four to a flush at the end.) How can I finger these “four-flushers” and extract the maximum from them on the end?

I have a few ideas about how to identify a real flush draw from a pretend one. One is to pay attention to how many saw the flop. If (as in my example) four players see a flop with two hearts, the chances are good the one guy with two more hearts in his hand is going to be sticking around to the end. If, on the other hand, there are only two to the flop, odds are he’s a “four-flusher” and doesn’t have the goods come showdown. Another is to note whether your opponent has appeared to have been doing a lot of chasing previously (calling down and then folding on the river, or showing a few made straights or flushes that only came in at the end).

Still, I feel like I could certainly stand to improve in this particular department. Losing to the suck-out is going to happen and can’t be helped, but missing bets on the end with the best hand is a different story. Gotta figure how to squeeze those second-best stooges for all their worth.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Raising Hellmuth

'Play Poker Like the Pros' by Phil HellmuthWell, the Poker Brat did it. Phil Hellmuth, Jr. won the $1,000 NL Hold ‘em with rebuys event (Event No. 34), besting a field of 754 to grab his tenth WSOP bracelet. It didn’t appear too likely once Daryn Firicano busted out in third and Hellmuth was left to battle Juha Helppi. (You might remember Helppi was the fellow who as an amateur beat out Phil Gordon in that amateurs-vs.-pros WPT event from the first season.) When heads-up play began, Hellmuth was outchipped 2-to-1. Six hands later Helppi had a 3-to-1 advantage. Then came that wild, miraculous hand that turned the tide.

Helppi was sitting pretty with about $1,850,000 in chips while Hellmuth was down to $650,000. The blinds were $15,000/$30,000 with a $5,000 ante. Helppi raised to $90,000 from the button and Hellmuth moved all in from the big blind. Helppi called and it was his Ah6d versus Hellmuth’s 5h5s. The flop was a crowd-electrifying KdJd5d, giving Hellmuth a set but also giving Helppi nine outs to a possible tourney-winning flush. The Qd came on the turn, completing the Finnish player’s flush and leaving Hellmuth ten outs to fill up or make quads. Fortunately for Hellmuth, the Qh came on the river and he survived, pulling about even in chips. Over the next thirty hands or so, Hellmuth slowly increased his lead before finally taking the last of the chips when his AsJh outlasted Helppi's Ad9h.

Not that huge of a surprise, really, considering how the Brat has been going at this year’s series. He had already seen a couple of final tables, including a second place finish (out of 622) in the $5,000 NL Hold ’em event (Event No. 9). Of course, Hellmuth would've been the center of attention anyway. Everyone seems to have an opinion about him. His books and DVDs routinely receive a fair amount of criticism on message boards, newsgroups, and blogs. Despite his many accomplishments, it has almost become a cliché for poker players to dismiss outright his best-selling Play Poker Like the Pros.

I’d mentioned in an earlier post that I’d read Hellmuth’s book and intended at some point to say something about it, so I thought this might be as good of an occasion as any to do so. Play Poker Like the Pros is hardly the best or most helpful poker book I’ve read, but I’ll grant that it does possess some merit, especially for someone brand new to poker.

Nearly half of Play Poker Like the Pros concerns limit hold ‘em cash games. Hellmuth outlines a “beginner” strategy whereby one is encouraged only to play “top ten” premium hands, and almost always to play them aggressively (to “ram and jam” the pot). This advice gets targeted a lot by critics, particularly since Hellmuth includes 77 in his “top ten,” a hand that rarely survives the “ram and jam” approach unless one is up against a set of meek opponents (or if you’ve so well established your tight image no one will play back at you). He goes on to add other possible hands to the mix for “intermediate” and “advanced” play, and offers a lot of specific advice about post-flop play and dealing with various, commonly-faced scenarios.

Another issue Hellmuth discusses early on in Play Poker Like the Pros is how to interpret other players’ styles and act accordingly. His infamous “animal types”-approach to classifying players has been mocked by many -- Hellmuth calls the conservative rock a “mouse,” the loose-aggressive maniac a “jackal,” the immovable calling station an “elephant,” and so forth. Even if the idea is reductive (or even silly), the approach isn’t that bad of a way of introducing the importance of paying attention to what others are doing at the table.

The first poker book I ever read was David Sklansky’s Hold ’em Poker, a decent primer for learning about starting hand groupings, pot odds, and other strategies. While Sklansky does explain at times how to interpret another player’s action during a hand, he really is focusing throughout on a single kind of opponent, the kind that played the somewhat-tight $10-$20 limit game at the Mirage back in the 70s and 80s when he wrote and revised the book. Sklansky’s advice is theoretically sound, but it doesn’t always apply very well to the looser games one encounters online (esp. at lower limits). Just being aware of different styles (as Hellmuth encourages the limit hold ’em player to be) is a benefit, especially to the beginning player. (Of course, Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth go way beyond Hellmuth in this regard with their Small Stakes Hold ’em, a much much better resource for dealing with loose low limit games, though not necessarily the best book for beginners.)

Play Poker Like the Pros also includes a much briefer discussion of pot-limit and no-limit hold ’em cash games, as well as a tiny chapter (only a dozen pages or so) about limit hold ’em tourneys. I’ve never gotten much at all out of these chapters, and indeed, it is somewhat baffling to consider how little Hellmuth has to offer here to the person wanting to learn how to play hold ’em tourneys. (All ten of his WSOP bracelets have been in hold ‘em events.)

Finally, Hellmuth includes chapters on Pot Limit Omaha, Omaha 8-or-better, Seven-Card Stud, Stud 8-or-better, and Razz, as well as a cursory discussion of playing online. These chapters on other games are not bad to have around as a reference, I suppose. As I mentioned earlier, the chapter on Razz is apparently one of the few strategy discussions of that game available. Still, none of this material really distinguishes the book that greatly.

People continue to buy Play Poker Like the Pros, though certainly not at the clip they were a couple of years ago. Looking over at Amazon’s up-to-the-minute listing of top-selling poker books, there are 25 other poker books outselling Play Poker Like the Pros at the moment I'm publishing this post. Looks like the Brat’s win didn’t really cause that much of a jump in sales. Meanwhile, Dan Harrington is riding high, with both Volume I and Volume III of his Harrington on Hold ’em coming close to cracking the top 100 selling books overall. That’s among all the books Amazon sells! (Harrington did say on The Circuit the other night one of the main reasons he wrote his Hold ’em volumes was for the money . . . . Action Dan knows what he’s doing, all right.)

The loudest censure of Play Poker Like the Pros usually concerns the large amount of anecdotal material Hellmuth includes, most of which reads as more of that ego-massage-type behavior we've come to expect from Hellmuth. I’m not going to disagree with that criticism here -- especially in the chapters about non-hold ’em games, one gets the sense at times that Hellmuth's purpose is more to prove his worth in these games than to teach strategy.

As far as instruction goes, there are much better books about limit hold ’em than Hellmuth’s, no doubt. And for the NL hold ’em tourney player, the book has practically no value at all. That being said, while I don’t necessarily recommend the book outright, I’ll admit to have benefitted somewhat from the experience of having read it as a novice player. That’s why I usually don’t rush to join the chorus of Hellmuth-haters whenever the subject of Play Poker Like the Pros comes up.

I usually don't rush to defend him either, though. Hellmuth takes care of that just fine on his own.

Image: Phil Hellmuth, Play Poker Like the Pros (2003), Amazon.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Doing the "What If?" Shuffle (the sequel)

The investigation continues . . . In my last post I decided to track down the answer to a question about how the shuffling software works over at PokerStars, a site where I play frequently. After one of those very common “what if?” situations (I had folded a hand preflop that would have flopped a straight), I wondered about a comment I had heard on the PokerDiagram podcast regarding online sites and how they “reshuffle” the deck all throughout the hand. I wrote an email to PokerStars and they told me that, in fact, they only run their randomizing program once prior to the hand and thus “set the deck.” This meant that when you decide to fold that four-flusher on the turn and the fifth of your suit comes on the river, you can correctly torment yourself with the woulda-shoulda-couldas. If that’s your cup of tea.

Anyhow, since the fellows on PokerDiagram play on PokerRoom (a site on which I do not play), I decided to send PokerRoom an email asking how their shuffling software works. In his comment on that post, derbywhite said not to “hold your breath waiting for a reply” from PokerRoom -- good advice, as they have yet to respond (over 48 hours later). But I was already wearing my detective hat, so I decided to keep snooping. I thought I’d ask around at other sites to find out what the “norm” was. Doing so would serve a few purposes: (1) I’d find out whether other sites, like PokerStars, only shuffle the deck once prior to the hand or not; (2) I’d learn a bit about how shuffling software works, generally speaking, and how sites defend the integrity of their games; and (3) I’d perform an informal survey of the level of customer support at each site.

I looked on Poker Listings -- a helpful site that gives tons of information about fifty or so poker sites -- and picked out the ten sites that currently have the highest player volume. Those sites (from highest volume on down) are PokerStars, PartyPoker, PokerRoom, Hollywood Poker, Ultimate Bet, Paradise Poker, Doyle’s Room, Poker Share, Full Tilt Poker, and Pacific Poker. (PartyPoker has the highest cash game volume, but PokerStars makes the top of their list because of its frequent high-entry tourneys.) I had already contacted PokerStars and PokerRoom, so I sent a similar message to the other eight sites asking them about whether the cards were reshuffled during the hand or not.

The first to respond was Paradise Poker. Within 15 minutes I was directed to a page on their website with a fairly detailed description of their shuffling software that appears written for programmers. I battled through it, however, and toward the end found my answer. Each time they run the program, they create what they call a “seed” (referring to the shuffled deck). They then update the seed very frequently (again, like PokerStars, incorporating lots of input such as players’ mouse and keyboard movements), including during the hand. As they explain, “The updated seed is used for dealing cards during each card dealing round, and since a hand always lasts longer than it takes to inject 2000 bits of new random data, all subsequent cards will be dealt using a seed which is completely random and which is completely unrelated to the seed used to deal the previous hands of cards.” So Paradise reshuffles throughout the hand. Asking “what if?” is even less meaningful over there, as the cards would not necessarily have come out the same way.

Pacific Poker sent a response shortly afterwards (within 30 minutes), and while they also sent me a somewhat technical explanation of the process, the support person helpfully prefaced that with this handy sentence: “I am enclosing an explanation but in answer to your specific question it is done on every card.” Then came Hollywood Poker's response (within 45 minutes) which begins in uncertainty (“I cannot say for sure how does the random number generator works [sic] in shuffling and dealing . . . ”) but concludes by saying that at “each phase in a single hand, the cards are generated at the moment it is shown on the hand or table and not pregenerated in the deck.” Soon afterwards, Poker Share sent a terse but clear response that “the deck is shuffled after every card, rather than after every round.”

Like poker players, detectives are always looking for patterns. And I was seeing one. Of the first four sites to respond, all four reshuffled the deck throughout the hand. I wondered if I might be approaching an "industry standard" here -- one that PokerStars didn't necessarily follow . . . ?

Full Tilt Poker got back to me within 90 minutes or so with a detailed message defending its software’s integrity (but not really addressing the question). However, FTP did direct me to “a newsgroup link to a simplified explanation by Perry Friedman (one of our pros) of how our random number generator works.” I followed the link which didn’t seem to feature Perry Friedman at all but did include a transcript of a chat session involving Howard Lederer. There Lederer explains that over at FTP “the remaining cards are shuffled during the action.”

In his comment to my earlier post, mattastic had said he thought FTP reshuffles throughout the hand and he was right. Incidentally, Full Tilt has incorporated a new feature in its games that seems doubly useless, given this information. After you have folded, for the rest of the hand you can hold your mouse over your avatar to see what cards you folded, in case you forgot. (There is a thread in which some were discussing this new feature -- and related issues -- over on the Card Clubs Network Forums over the past couple of weeks.) But since they reshuffle the deck during the hand, the only thing that is significant about the cards you folded is that no one else will be receiving them. In other words, the only person who gets this information is the one person for whom it is utterly meaningless!

The only other site that responded to my message was Doyle’s Room. (I never heard from PokerRoom, PartyPoker, or Ultimate Bet.) Within an hour or so Doyle’s Room got back to me with a valiant but ambiguous reply that didn’t really answer the question. They did, however, tell me if had any further questions to contact Gaming Associates, an independent agency that consults with many online gambling sites. I sent them the question, and looking at their response it appears I’ve got the whole team buzzing over there:

Gaming Associates tries to clarify

Of the seven sites that responded, then, six of them reshuffle throughout the hand. And Mr. Pedley here (who probably knows a bit more that you or I do about the subject) says that “generally” speaking that is the way it is done -- online sites don’t usually “set the deck” the way PokerStars does.

Based on this information, I’m guessing that PokerRoom -- as Henry and Zog were saying on the PokerDiagram podcast -- probably does as most of the industry does and reshuffles throughout the hand. There’s probably an advantage, security-wise, in doing so, I would imagine, although I’m not too concerned about the integrity of PokerStars’ games. Nor am I that concerned, really -- despite the length of these last two posts -- about whether I should have played that 58-offsuit when the flop came 746. Hard enough to live in the world as it is without worrying over what it might have been . . . .

Photo: Tom Neal from the 1945 film Detour (adapted), public domain.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Doing the "What If?" Shuffle

What if?Just listened to the latest installment of PokerDiagram, the podcast in which two Londoners play online poker tourneys (SNGs, MTTs) and narrate their adventures as they do. If you haven’t heard it yet, go check it out. The show’s hosts, Henry and Zog, are quick-witted and knowledgeable, and they interact in ways that usually make the show entertaining and even compelling. (See my earlier post for a review of PokerDiagram.)

During this particular show (episode 42, titled “Cheers!”), Zog enters a $20+$2 MTT on PokerRoom (their favorite site). After struggling for a good while, Zog finds himself sitting in 36th place out of 44 remaining players with about 1900 chips, something like a third of the average stack size. The blinds are 100/200 and only the top ten places pay, so he’s feeling a bit of pressure to make a move when he gets dealt T9-suited in the big blind. The Zogster really wants to play the hand, but sees a substantial raise from one player and a call from another before the action gets back to him. The duo hem and haw a bit before Zog finally says “It’s close, but I’m gonna fold this.” No longer in the hand, they watch the flop come T9x and momentarily express disappointment at what appears to have been a missed opportunity.

We’ve all been there. Just today I had a hand in a $0.50/$1.00 limit ring game where I was dealt 5h8c in the small blind and after deciding it wasn’t worth the quarter to complete watched the flop come 7h4h6c. Why didn’t I call!? It was just a quarter! Then I remembered Zog having said something about how “it’s not a preshuffled, prearranged deck” when one plays online. The subject came up again later in the show, and Henry and Zog make it clear that it is their understanding that the cards are randomized at every stage of the hand, not arranged in a particular sequence before the hand and left unchanged (as would be the case in a live game). In other words -- if I’m understanding the pair correctly -- they believe that flop might not necessarily have come T9x if Zog had called.

I wondered if this were in fact the case -- if the sites don’t “set the deck” with each hand but in fact apply their shuffling software to each and every card that comes off. If I'm going to call myself a shamus, I figured some detective work was in order.

I have no account at PokerRoom, so I went over to PokerStars (where I do) and checked out what they say on their website about their shuffling software. How can they guarantee the deal is really random? Well, as they explain it, they ensure “a fair and unpredictable shuffle” by constantly gathering a great deal of “truly random data” that is then used as source material affecting the order in which the cards are dealt for a given hand. In other words, PokerStars randomizes its shuffle by figuring other, independently-produced information into the equation.

Here’s an analogy: Pauline knows her husband, Bruce, likes to have either a ham sandwich or vegetable soup for lunch. She also knows Bruce doesn’t like knowing beforehand what she’s made him for lunch, he so enjoys being surprised each day when he opens his lunchbox. (Bruce is easily amused.) So each morning Pauline makes up both lunches, places them in identical lunchboxes, and watches as Bruce grabs one off the kitchen table as he leaves for work. In order to make sure his choice is “fair and unpredictable,” Pauline checks the weather report in the newspaper to see what the high temperature is forecasted to be that day. If the forecasted high is an odd number of degrees Fahrenheit, she places the lunchbox with the ham sandwich nearest the door. If it is an even number, she places the lunchbox with the soup nearest the door.

The weather report provides Pauline source material with which to help randomize her placement of the lunchboxes, and thus, Bruce's selection. Similarly, PokerStars gathers what it considers “truly random data” to plug into its software in order to produce a random (or “fair and unpredictable”) shuffle. While Pauline only uses one piece of information for this purpose, PokerStars says it gathers 249 “random bits” and enters them all into their shuffling software in order to produce the deal. Pauline gets her one “bit” from the local newspaper; the PokerStars software -- the random number generator that determines what cards are dealt -- gathers its 249 random bits from two primary sources.

One source is the “thermal noise” produced by a resistor -- that is, the genuinely unpredictable fluctuations that occur when voltage is applied to that resistor. These fluctuations are measured and redistributed as some of the “bits” needed by the random number generator. I imagine this must be a machine or computer of some sort rigged up somewhere in Costa Rica (where PokerStars is headquartered) with lots of measuring instruments taking down various data related to the fluctuations and pumping those numbers into its randomization program.

The other source of random bits might surprise you. It’s us. That’s right -- the players. Data is gathered from “a summary of mouse movements and events timing” and used along with the thermal noise data to determine the ultimate order of the cards. So the amount of time you spent deciding whether to check, raise, or fold actually affects the order in which the cards across the site are being randomized. Of course, we’re talking about at any given moment tens of thousands of players’ movements affecting hundreds of thousands of deals, so there’s little hope of precisely tracking the effect of how one person moves his or her mouse and the timing of his or her clicks. But such actions do, most definitely, affect the process of randomization. (Reminds one more than a little of the butterfly effect, from chaos theory.)

All of this information was very diverting, but my question hadn’t really been answered by any of it. Would I have made my straight had I played my crappy 58 on that hand with the 746 flop? I wrote PokerStars support an email asking them whether or not the randomization process is applied multiple times throughout the hand (e.g., before the deal, before the flop, after the flop, after the turn) or if it is only applied once prior to the hand. As usual with PokerStars, they got back to me very quickly (in less than two hours). Here is what they had to say:

PokerStars responds to Shamus's query

I would have made my straight! It didn’t matter whether I hesitated or moved the mouse around the screen before folding -- the order of the cards for that particular hand already had been determined and would not change, regardless of the action. Zog and Henry’s claim about there not being a “preshuffled, prearranged deck” wasn’t the case here . . . ! PokerStars does, in fact, "set the deck" (as what they call a "virtual stub").

I wondered if perhaps PokerRoom does things differently, so even though I don’t have an account with them I sent them a message asking the same question. Half a day later, they've yet to get back to me. If they do, I'll post their response. Meanwhile, I'll just keep on wondering what if . . . .

(Click here to read the follow-up post.)

Photo: Tom Neal from the 1945 film Detour, public domain.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Poker by ABC

Been reading The Biggest Game in Town again, the classic account of the 1981 WSOP by Al Alvarez. I recommend it all the time, even to non-poker players as the varieties of wisdom Alvarez offers extend well beyond the game. As an Englishman, Alvarez makes frequent observations about America’s values (both good and bad) and how Las Vegas -- circa ’81 -- dramatizes those values in full. I want eventually to write a post (or two) discussing the book at length, but wanted here just to bring up one item that comes up early on regarding the differences between limit poker and the high-stakes, no-limit variety Alvarez concentrates on most directly.

As a low-limit grinder who flirted with the no-limit seductress intermittently before ultimately deciding her too hot to handle -- clearly somebody has had Mickey Spillane on his mind recently -- I find the way limit and NL are contrasted in The Biggest Game in Town to be a helpful eye-opener. I know that my approach to poker -- to play relatively conservatively in settings where the risk is low and the reward only marginal -- is utterly unlike that of many players who prefer the adrenaline-fueled, all-in thrills of the NL game. For me, a book like this one helps me understand that difference even more clearly.

When Alvarez wrote his book back in the early ’80s, he highlighted Binion’s Horseshoe casino as the only venue in town then offering high-stakes, NL games. (Times have changed, of course.) Alvarez is fascinated by what he calls the “unreality” of these games, and talks to several who play in them in order to learn how they endure such “dizzy altitudes” and what makes those games different from the ones played by those with less gamble in them. One player, Jack Straus, tells Alvarez that limit poker is really best thought of as “a disciplined job” in which “anybody who wants to work out the mathematics can . . . chisel out an existence.” Alvarez admits that he himself tends to approach the game in this fashion. As an illustration, Alvarez tells how during his month-long stay in Vegas he played $3-$6 limit hold ’em almost every night he was there: “We would sit there, all of us, throwing away hand after hand, waiting for ironclad certainties -- ‘the nuts’ -- or an edge, or, better still, for a weary tourist to drive in off the desert and start chasing his luck. It was an exercise in discipline and patience, and had less in common with gambling than with a term in the salt mines.”

Alvarez goes on to quote Crandall Addington’s now-famous line that “Limit poker is a science, but no-limit is an art. In limit, you are shooting at a target. In no-limit, the target comes alive and shoots back at you.” These characterizations of limit poker as a “business” or a “science” are useful, frankly, to those of us who prefer such games. While I imagine I do receive in moderate doses the kind of pleasurable thrill the no-limit player experiences, I know that I’m not really a gambler -- and am thus probably destined to remain “short-stacked.” As I’ve posted about before, limit can be exciting, even at the small stakes. It’s important, however, for low limit players to remember that they really are engaged in an activity that probably has more in common with business than pleasure, with science than art.

I’ve thought about this for awhile, and I’ve finally concluded that success in limit poker is mostly a matter of ABC: the Ability to make correct decisions, drawing Bad opponents, and catching Cards. Approaching all of this like a science or a math problem, I’m going to go ahead and write the formula this way: To come out ahead in a given session, two of these three factors -- Ability, Bad opponents, or Cards -- need to be favorable.

Ability is, of course, a relative term, but if you’ve played for awhile and perhaps read a book or two, you know what is “correct” and what is not and when it is appropriate to act correctly and when it is appropriate to act against expectations. Hopefully during a session your decision-making ability remains at its highest level, but we all know this doesn’t always happen.

Bad players at the table with you also helps. By “bad” I mean players who consistently make mistakes, particularly the kinds of mistakes that make it easier for you to increase your profits (e.g., chasing a lot and folding on the river, cold-calling preflop raises with marginal hands, calling to the end with low pairs, etc.). Now these players can deliver some horrendous beats and take large pots from you now and again, but overall you are going to be better off having these guys around.

Catching cards is nice, too, of course, and can really affect how a session of limit goes. You can win without cards, but (in my experience, anyway) you need to have A + B (some ability and be up against bad opponents) for that to happen. Unlike in no-limit, where one can run over a table without necessarily being dealt any premium hands or hitting any flops, you generally will need to catch some cards in limit at least now and then to hold your own.

My sense is that most of my limit sessions -- winning and losing -- prove this formula to be fairly accurate. Above all, though, I can’t ever delude myself into thinking what I’m doing at my $0.50/$1.00 limit table much resembles what’s happening over on the no-limit side, especially at the higher stakes. We build modest little stories with block letters, while they construct the tallest of tales with an entirely different set of tools. As Alvarez says, “It is a question not just of a different level of skill but of a different ordering of reality.”

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Spillane Punches Out

Mickey Spillane might well have sold more “hard-boiled” fiction than any other writer of the twentieth century. When his first novel, I, the Jury, was released as a 25-cent Signet paperback in 1947, it was a genuine worldwide blockbuster, selling something like four million copies within five years. Spillane took advantage of his newfound fame, quickly producing four more novels featuring his narrator-private detective, Mike Hammer, over the next five years. (He'd ultimately produce over a dozen Hammer novels.)

Spillane died this week at the age of 88. Since I’ve already alluded to him in an earlier post or two, I thought I’d take the occasion to share a couple of thoughts about the man and his work.

Spillane began his creative career writing comic books, and his novels all exhibit a similarly-garish, “comic book”-type quality. The violence generally goes well beyond what one finds in earlier crime fiction. When Hammer finds a recently-shot John Hanson -- one of the many bodies strewn around I, the Jury -- we read how “He lay at the foot of the bed with his head in a puddle of his own blood and brains, and with a hole squarely between the eyes. On the wall was more of his goo, with the plaster cracked from where the bullet entered. He was a mess, this John Hanson.” And on to the next chapter. And body. There’s also in Spillane’s novels no shortage of sex -- sometimes presented in vivid, softcore colors. Brazen references to anatomical riches (“Her breasts were laughing things that were firmly in place”) are the norm whenever Hammer has to interview a new female suspect or witness. And while the earlier fictional detectives tended to avoid getting too distracted by romantic liaisons, Hammer screws around like a sailor on leave. Women throw themselves at Hammer from all directions, and more than occasionally, Hammer gives in to take what they're offering (“I was only human,” he’ll explain). Usually with little in the way of consequences.

Spillane often described the structure of novels as being -- as in some comics -- like that of jokes. As he is quoted saying in Speaking of Murder (ed. Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg), “The biggest part of the joke is the punch line, so the biggest part of a book should be the punch line, the ending. People don’t read a book to get to the middle, they read a book to get to the end and hope that the ending justifies all the time they spent reading it. So what I do is, I get my ending and, knowing what my ending is going to be, then I write to the end and have the fun of knowing where I’m going but not how I’m going to get there.”

Poker players might well appreciate that. As interesting and important as the deal, flop, and turn are, the “biggest part” of the hand is the river, the ending. They don’t play to “get to the middle,” but “to get to the end and hope the ending justifies all the time they spent” getting there. Poker players might also appreciate Spillane’s unapologetic love of the green. Unlike many authors, Spillane saw actually selling books to be the point of it all, often referring to his readers not as “fans” but as “customers.” He also didn’t care much for critics, many of whom decried the overt violence and misogyny of his novels. “I don’t give a hoot about reading reviews,” he claimed. “What I want to read is the royalty checks.” The fact that most of us who were born well after his most popular novels were first published remember Spillane mainly for all of those Miller Lite ads he made in the 70s and 80s confirms the fact that “selling out” really wasn’t a concern of his.

Truth be told, novel-writing also wasn’t that big of a concern for Spillane. He often said he wrote his novels very rapidly, usually finishing one within two weeks, and also claimed never to revise. Unlike some authors, Spillane clearly wasn’t “driven” to write (other than by monetary-reasons), and on two occasions took long breaks from novel-writing (from 1953-1961 and from 1973-1989).

Still, Spillane did possess a kind of gift for crafting the page-turner. I tend not to recommend Spillane too highly as there are so many other better, more-rewarding “hard-boiled” writers from which to choose. Mike Hammer certainly collects all of those qualities we have come to expect from the tough-guy gumshoe prototype, although unlike other, better-realized fictional shamuses, he hardly exists as a character to which one can readily relate. More “comic book” than real, I’m afraid. Ultimately, even Spillane’s best novels are highly derivative of those by better writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. (In fact, some have suggested the name of Spillane’s detective -- Hammer -- to be a hybridization of the names of these two greats.) And what’s “original” about Spillane -- the puddles of blood and brains, the “breasts that were firm and inviting,” etc. -- isn’t so special, particularly today when we’ve no shortage of graphic depictions of sex and violence on the cultural landscape.

But I, the Jury is probably worth a look, mainly for its historical significance. And for that ending, which still is startling (even if the reader sees it coming).

Image: Mickey Spillane, public domain.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Everybody's Talkin'

Was at the Razz tables again today for a bit (on Full Tilt Poker, the only major site that currently spreads Razz). There are easier things in the world than trying to find a Razz game, frankly. I found only four tables going -- 21 players total (out of about 5000 who were on the site at the time). And three of those tables were out of my league, stakes-wise. But there was that one $0.25/$0.50 table that mostly held together for the hour or so I was there. Actually ended up ahead this time (about $7.00). Was able to resist playing those 9-high hands or chasing other dubious draws, unlike before.

I’m starting to see that while Razz might appear to be overwhelmingly a “math” or “numbers” game, it actually involves a lot more “feel” than I realized before trying it out. I haven’t played enough, obviously, to be able to explain what that means, really. But it has been interesting to see how the third-street raising tends to go (usually only two or three players see fourth), how you really can bluff folks out of pots (and/or be bluffed out of pots), how one can go from being the favorite to a dog and back several times before a hand is complete, among other aspects of the game.

When I finished I tripped over to the 2+2 Forums to see if anyone ever talks about Razz over there. Didn’t find much. There is no “Razz” forum -- only an “Other Poker Games” section where Razz very occasionally comes up. (A couple of Razz-related threads actually popped up over in the “Stud” section as well.) As usually happens whenever I skim through the forums (at 2+2, RGP, the Card Clubs Network Forums, CardPlayer, THF), I ended up clicking around and getting distracted by other threads that looked interesting. I enjoy reading these and occasionally will contribute. Given that I live hundreds of miles from the nearest casino and am currently without a regular home game, it’s good to be able from time to time to have a kind of “community” of poker players with whom to discuss the game.

The poker forum is an interesting animal, really. Some of the threads on 2+2 get fairly competitive, almost as though those who are posting see themselves as participating in a hand of poker. One will “open bet” (let’s say) with a comment challenging some sort of accepted wisdom, for example, “Harrington’s Law of Bluffing” which states “the probability that your opponent is bluffing when he shoves a big bet in the pot is always at least 10 percent” (from Volume 1 of Harrington on Hold ‘em). Nonsense, says the thread-starter -- there are some players who simply never ever bluff. The first few respondents write comments that essentially agree with the original post (they “call” him). Then someone decides to put in a small “raise” by modifying the original argument, applying the principle to limit hold ’em (not NL tourneys). Then another “reraises” by challenging that assumption. And so forth.

That particular thread has thus far remained fairly amicable, although sometimes you’ll see posters aggressively battling each other as if vying for a huge pot. Another similarity with playing online is the fact that irony/sarcasm generally doesn’t go over terribly well -- oftentimes you’ll see threads taken completely off-track by someone having mistaken a tongue-in-cheek comment for sincerity, follow-up “I-was-half-joking-when-I-said-that”-type posts, or the like.

These phenomena aren’t specific to poker forums, of course, but the fact that poker players are usually trying not to “communicate” with complete transparency when at the table -- instead deliberately deceiving others with false cues -- makes it doubly interesting to witness these genuine attempts to communicate in the forums.

Or via blogs, for that matter.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Raising a Glass to the Return of Prohibition

A Prohibition Poster, only slightly modifiedAll of Dashiell Hammett’s great hard-boiled novels -- Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Thin Man -- take place during the time of Prohibition. Except for the The Thin Man, all were published prior to the 1933 passage of the 21st Amendment (repealing the 18th Amendment prohibiting “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liqours”). The Thin Man, published in 1934, is set a couple of years earlier and shows its protagonist couple Nick and Nora Charles and other characters easily locating drinking establishments (“speakeasies”) where they consume prodigous amounts of alcohol throughout the novel. Some see the high frequency of drinking in The Thin Man as adding up to a kind of commentary by Hammett on the futility of trying to enforce prohibition laws. Characters often end up in joints like the Pigiron Club ordering drink after drink, clearly nonplussed by the legality of such establishments. Early in the novel Nick and Nora wake up one morning and over the paper Nick suggests having “a drop of something to cut the phlegm.” “Why don’t you have some breakfast first?” Nora suggests. “It’s too early for breakfast,” Nick replies.

In truth, consuming or possessing alcohol was never illegal -- only the “manufacture, sale, or transportation” was. Still, the law helped create what many deemed a disproportiately large “criminal” class of citizens, not to mention handed bootleggers and organized crime leaders a readymade business opportunity of which toughs like Al Capone, Earl Weiss, and “Bugs” Moran took full advantage.

Some have linked recent legal efforts to criminalize online gambling to Prohibition, particularly those who oppose bills like the one passed last week by the House of Representatives. As a recent article in CardPlayer Magazine helpfully points out, the bill the House passed was not the so-called “Goodlatte Bill,” a.k.a., H.R. 4777, a.k.a. the “Internet Gambling Prohibition Act.” Rather, what passed was a different bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican, that includes some but not all of Goodlatte’s proposals. Like Goodlatte’s bill, Leach’s bill (H.R. 4411) also (1) disallows online gaming sites from accepting payments via U.S. banks; (2) disallows U.S. banks from delivering payments to online gaming sites; (3) amends the definition of “wire communication” to include the Internet; and (4) places a “burden” upon ISP’s to block online gaming sites. There are other provisions in the bill, including dubious “carve-outs” or exceptions for lotteries and horse racing.

The bill now must be approved both by the senate and the White House. Word is the White House will support the bill, if it gets that far. However, the senate appears less concerned about even discussing the bill for now, and apparently (at present, anyway) there aren’t enough votes there for it to pass through. Still, the fact that H.R. 4411 passed in the House by such a large margin -- 317 ayes, 93 noes -- suggests that a lot of our elected representatives see reason to support such a bill. Allyn Jaffrey Shulman’s article “A Comprehensive Analysis of the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act” (from the May 2, 2006 issue of CardPlayer) explains what Goodlatte’s bill is, the political context for its having reached the House floor now, as well as the various implications of the bill should it ever pass. (Much of what she says about Goodlatte’s bill also applies to H.R. 4411.)

A lot of online poker players don’t realize that Goodlatte’s bill has been around for a long time -- longer than any of the online poker sites have been in operation. The bill actually originated over in the senate when Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Arizona) proposed it back in 1997. (Goodlatte then proposed the “House version” of an essentially similar bill shortly thereafter.) Thus when debate began nearly ten years ago about the possibilities of creating a federal law that would make online gambling a crime, there was no PokerStars or Party Poker or Full Tilt Poker. (While online gambling sites first came about in 1995, the first online poker site, Planet Poker, didn’t arrive until 1998.) This means that the sites on which we all play were (in most cases) constructed very deliberately so as to avoid possible legal hassles down the road. All are located offshore (i.e., not in America) in other countries, many of which in fact regulate internet gambling (such as the U.K.). Also, credit card companies and banks quickly began to disallow money transfers to and from these sites (even though they weren’t compelled by any law to do so); thus the popular “third-party” money transfer sites like Neteller and Firepay (also located offshore) stepped in to provide a means for players to get money to and from the sites.

The very way online poker has developed, then, proves what some observers were saying way back in the late 1990s when the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act was first presented. Back in May 1998, Andrea Lessani of the The UCLA Online Institute for Cyberspace Law and Policy argued that “the passage of the Internet Act would not eliminate online gambling and protect against the dangers of Internet gambling. Instead, its passage would drive online gambling underground and may even intensify the problems of Internet gambling.” (Her article can be viewed online at the Institute’s archive.) Lessani instead favors regulation and taxation -- not coincidentally, the same solution eventually settled upon in America regarding the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol.

The fact that our favorite sites have already anticipated such a crackdown, putting into place the offshore “loophole” even before it was necessary, demonstrates in part how impotent bills like H.R. 4411 and H.R. 4777 potentially are. If either bill passes and ISPs indeed start to block Americans’ access to online poker sites, you can bet that other “loopholes” will already have been created well in advance to ensure uninterrupted play.

What’ll be different? Not much. Aside from the fact that, technically speaking, we’ll all be criminals. Some of us even before breakfast.

Image: Temperance poster, ca. 1910-15 (adapted), public domain.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Dazed and Confused; or, My Introductions to Omaha and Seven-Card Stud

Still keeping an eye on that H.O.R.S.E. event at the WSOP. They’ve finally whittled the original field of 143 down to the final 9. Gotta love that final table, with Doyle Brunson and T.J. Cloutier still there. Talk about a couple of tough “horses" -- a couple of 70-plus-year-olds making it through that ungodly 19-hour second day. Phil Ivey, Andy Bloch, Chip Reese . . . should be a great finale. A shame that they will now play it out as a no-limit hold ’em event, but I’ll still be checking in to see who survives.

Again, as a nod to the H.O.R.S.E. event, I wanted to make one more non-hold ’em post and talk a bit about Omaha and Stud. I used to play both games quite a bit, especially Pot Limit Omaha (high only), though not so much for the last six months or so. My introduction to Omaha was kind of interesting. I had only been playing for play chips on PokerStars for a month or so when some of the friends with whom I had been playing recommended giving Omaha a try. After only a few hands at a ring table, I entered one of those Sunday afternoon freeroll tournaments Stars regularly runs, a fixed limit Omaha (high only) tourney with over 6000 entrants. I searched around on the web a bit just before the tournament began and found what looked like a reasonable, simple little chart explaining how to rate Omaha starting hands by assigning certain points -- e.g., AA gets 30 pts., Ace & anything suited gets 10 pts., connectors get two points, etc. If your hand totalled 10-15 pts., you could call the BB. If you had more, you could call a raise. Even more and you could raise yourself. I propped my chart on the keyboard, loaded Led Zeppelin’s eight studio albums into Winamp, and watched as the first hand was dealt.

Now these huge freerolls tend to attract a lot of less-than-serious players, and in the case of an Omaha tourney, I’m sure they also bring in a significant number of folks who aren’t even clear about the rules of the game. (I at least knew the rules, even if I didn’t have much of a clue about strategy.) I followed my little chart pretty closely, which I soon realized only permitted me to play about 10-15% of the hands. Such a super-tight approach allowed me to survive the first couple of thousand casualties pretty easily, although my stack wasn’t growing very much. Then somewhere around “Gallows Pole” I caught a rush of cards and found myself among the top hundred. I continued to limp along. A couple of hours later we were down to 800 and “Achilles’ Last Stand.” Then there were 300 left -- “Hot Dog”! Finally came the last, drawn-out chords of “I’m Gonna Crawl” . . . an appropriate title, as I had become one of the shorter stacks clinging for dear life. The music stopped and I looked up to see I was sitting at 9th out of 12 remaining. Then 9th out of 11. Then 9th out of 10.

The “prize” for the tourney was only for those who made the final table (top 9) -- an entry into the “Weekly Round 2” tourney the following Sunday (a freeroll with a $100 prize pool). I remember being dealt something like AsAhJs5d and actually folding it, nervously eyeing the guy on the other table who only had a single big blind remaining. Finally, after folding a few more hands, I watched as he was bounced. “Congratulations, you have made the final table!” The very next hand was an all-in fest, and I happily went out in ninth place. Ninth! Out of over 6000. I was starting to think I might like Omaha.

Only later did I realize that I had misread the chart I had used -- it was designed for Omaha 8-or-better (or “high-low”), not just Omaha high. So that’s why it awarded 15 pts. for having a deuce and a trey in your hand! (Shamus smacks forehead.) Still, somehow, I’d overcome even this self-imposed handicap to get through five-plus hours and thousands of opponents. Have to say, for someone who’d yet to make his first deposit to play real money games, this was some serious fun.

I checked the schedule and saw the following Sunday’s “Weekly Round 2” was actually a limit Stud tourney. I didn’t realize at the time that Poker Stars allows you to bank tourney entries and use them whenever you wish, so I thought I had one week to learn yet another game. I picked up a copy of Roy West’s 7 Card Stud: 42 Lessons How to Win at Medium & Lower Limits -- not necessarily the best way to learn how to negotiate a stud tournament (although there is a section in the back by Tom McEvoy about “Tournament Tactics”), but definitely a nice introduction to the game. I read through the entire book, took lots of notes, and made up a chart that compiled West’s recommendations for starting hands and fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-street play. Whereas I had prepared a total of ten minutes for the Omaha tourney, I had probably put in at least 15 hours getting ready for my big Stud debut.

What happened? Not much. I busted out within the first hour. None of West’s recommendations seemed to work as described. I was placed at a table where five of the eight players had neglected to show up for the tourney, so it was just me, the five “sitting out” zombies, and two extremely aggressive players who appeared ready to cap the betting on every street. I couldn’t keep up at all, and thus received both an early exit and a short-lived prejudice against Stud.

Eventually I came to appreciate Stud and played the ring games every now and then. Omaha I liked even better, and for a time played nothing but PLO on Stars (nothing above the $0.05/$0.10 tables, of course). I did reasonably well in a few PLO SNG’s, and I even made another final table in another Omaha freeroll, finishing ninth again out of another field of thousands. I gravitated back to hold ’em, however, where I’ve been mostly camped out ever since.

I’ve been leafing through West’s book lately and occasionally sitting in on a few rounds of Stud. I’d like to get my hands on a good Omaha book, also, and get back into that game as well. I’ve seen recommended Ray Zee’s High-Low Split Poker (which covers both Stud and Omaha) -- I may pick it up. (Can anyone who has read it tell me what they think of that one?) Even if the WSOP has decided now that we’ve reached the final table of the H.O.R.S.E. event that these other games are no longer interesting, I’m still curious. Would hardly be a self-respecting detective if I weren't . . . .

Image: Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin (1969), Amazon.

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