Since tonight is the first segment of the final table of the World Series of Poker, it is appropriate that in this week’s post I blog in praise of poker. I began playing poker in my teens and although I played it off and on throughout adulthood, I’ve been playing every week for the last few years. (My win-loss records go back to March 2006.)
In my teens, seven stud was the “real” poker. I hated any game with a wild card; that was luck. Even as recently as 2005, I primarily played seven stud. That game allows a very logical analysis of the situation since so many cards are exposed. But since I’m in my fifties, trying to remember the folded cards is tough no matter how much Starbucks I’ve been drinking.
Today, I play tournament No Limit Hold ‘Em (TNL) almost exclusively and preferably single table tournaments. The only cards to remember are that there are 52 of them: Ace through King in four suits!
TNL appeals to my “grand strategy” perspective, which I bring from playing strategic war games. I enjoy considering a spectrum of variables, imperfect information, and then devising an approach which I believe will bring success even if it is subject to some randomness.
Also, poker is very much an “equal opportunity” sport. Players of any sex, age and physique can achieve excellence in it, unlike most other sports. And poker is primarily a game of skill.
The underlying skill nature of poker has been affirmed by a federal tax court. The IRS attempted to tax a professional poker player’s winnings as “unearned income” because it was “gambling.” The judge disagreed. He noted that he had little doubt who would prevail if the IRS attorney sat down to a poker match with the defendant. Also, it is my understanding that the basis for California’s poker rooms arises from a California Attorney General opinion that poker is primarily a game of skill, not luck, so it did not fall under California laws prohibiting games of chance.
Poker is the perfect game for an individualist. Unlike team sports, my performance depends entirely on me. At the end of the game, there’s no one to blame but myself if I played poorly. And if I play well, there may be a cash reward.
But it’s the satisfaction of competing and performing well that I find most appealing. The cash aspect just makes sure the game is played with the seriousness it deserves to be called ‘poker.” The “toss in the valueless play chips” style of the free online sites only provide what I call faux poker. And it doesn’t have to a huge amount of money to be real poker. I’ve never played for more than a $65 buy-in, which some folks will spend for dinner and a movie.
Except they’ll never get that money back, much less make a profit from their “entertainment.” I might make a profit and even if I don’t, it was great entertainment.
From a competitive perspective, TNL is the paradigm. “Ring” cash games are only about each round, like a sprint. TNL is like a marathon. T o win, you need a grand strategy with different tactics for the early, middle and end games.
If you don’t play poker, it’s fairly easy to think that the game is principally about the cards. Bet when you have them and fold when you don’t. While cards are a factor, often you’re playing the player and your cards are secondary. Your table image (how players perceive you) and your knowledge of the other players’ style are critical aspects of the game.
I prefer single table tournaments because there is no change to the players, unlike multi-table tournaments where new players regularly come to the table as the field narrows. I have no idea how these new folks play until I observe them for awhile and during the end game, time is often short as the blinds escalate. Also, any table image I‘ve build up is useless against these new players until they observe my play as well.
If your table image is that of being a “solid” player, then you can periodically play a decent hand very strongly and win a pot without opposition because everyone assumes you have a great hand. If a player is aggressive, then you can lay a trap that uses the other player’s aggression to your advantage.
For example, in one tournament, I called with A-6 suited in middle position with a fairly full table. That hand is fairly weak since it cannot flop a straight and there’s usually one other ace out there if it’s a full table. (Twenty cards at a ten-player table with 1 ace every 13 cards equals about 1.5 aces with a perfect statistical distribution.) Since a six beats only four (2-5) of the 12 other possible kickers, your ace is “dominated’ unless your kicker shows up. But all the other hands before me folded, so now it was looking good that I’d not have too many other opponents.
As it turned out, only one other player and the big blind came in. The flop was my three suits, giving me the highest possible flush. I was first to bet but of course betting here is a big signal which I did not want to send. So I checked and hoped someone would bet so I could hide my hand behind them. Next player checked.
Unsurprisingly, the big blind bet out 100. When everyone checks and shows weakness, the big blind will often bet and hope to win the pot right then and there by “representing” he has a hand. It can’t be too small a bet, which is obvious, or too large a bet, which is also obvious. That 100 was a bit strong since there was only 60 in the pot. But maybe he wanted to “flush out” <g> any flush!
Now a relatively inexperienced player might have put in a big raise at this point (a play known as check-raise) but not me. A raise here would only give away my hand and I wanted maximum winnings and to show my hand at the end.
Now was the right time for an Academy Award “I’m a wussy” performance. I took about half of my allotted time to “think” about what to do before calling and I made sure to throw in some subtle facial indications of concern (such as slight pursing of lips) that would not be obviously overacting. The next player quickly called, which I noted because how quickly one bets may also be an indicator of hand strength.
The fourth card was not dangerous since the only thing I had to worry about was a pair (because it allows a full house which would beat my flush). I checked, as did the next player. As I had hoped, the big blind saw how long I took to call, decided he could push me out of the hand and bet 300. Now I took all my time, then slowly exhaled just loud enough to be heard and then called, after which the other player folded.
The last card did not pair the board so I knew I had the winning hand. Since I had called a 300 bet, I was concerned the big blind might be wising up and might check if I did, so I came out with a bet of 600, or about two thirds of the almost 900 pot. Given my previous possibility, he assumed I was bluffing and quickly called, although I was really hoping to induce him into going all in so I could win all his chips. I showed the big flush and voila… I was now the chip leader with a bit over 3,000 and he was the short stack after losing 1,000 of his 1,500 starting chips. (I went on to a first place finish in that tournament.)
Although becoming the chip leader was nice, just as important was that the entire table saw how I had trapped him and they all made note: be careful of this guy. I used that table image to intimidate the table for the rest of the tournament. It’s tough to go up against the chip leader who’s shown that he’s a solid player.
Of course, I was periodically betting when I had only a decent hand but I wasn’t betting an amount large enough that a desperate player would want to take me up on in hope of significantly improving their chip stack if they got lucky. (Short stacks tend to go into a “banzai” do-or-die play.) They were willing to let me take a “small” pot because they were afraid I was “value betting” a big hand.
But a few “small” pots equal a decent pot. And if I called a fairly strong bet after checking, they were afraid to increase the bet because maybe I was trapping them. This allowed me cheap draws to a potentially huge hand when I did not have a hand. And cheap draws are what you do not want to allow if you have the apparent current best hand and there is a drawing hand that will beat you. You want opponents to pay dearly to draw to a better hand; hopefully, they’ll conclude that the price is not right and they will fold.
In chess, which I used to play before poker or war games, there is the concept of “gambit.” In a gambit, you make a small, early sacrifice to set up a strong position for future advantage. Part of my poker strategy often employs a gambit: I give up some token chips now to explore an opponent’s predilections with the intent of using that information to my advantage later on.
So, a favorite tactic is to feel out which player(s) are overly aggressive and/or overplay a hand. If I’m on a draw, and face a strong, but not huge, bet I’ll call if I have a good stack. If the other player now bets big after the next card, and I’ve not hit, I put on the “wussy” act before folding. I may do this two or three times with the same player, willingly losing a small amount of chips.
I am effectively engaging in Pavlovian training of this player: he becomes conditioned that if he just bets big enough, then I’ll fold. When I do hit the big hand, I will play on that training to let him bet bigger and bigger all the way to the end of the hand, at which point he will normally go all in. That works once because now the table is alerted to this tactic; but when you win a huge pot, then once is enough. Then I can change tactics and intimidate the table with decent hands.
You can see how poker is often about deception. If I have a strong hand, I want to win as much as possible from it. So I’ll make a “value bet” that doesn’t reveal the hand strength but is enough to narrow the field to just one other player to minimize the probability of my losing the hand to someone on a draw that can beat me if he hits. If I have a weak hand, I may try to “represent” it as a strong hand and hope the others will fold. That depends on my table image and a number of other factors.
The point is, TNL poker is a complex game. Cards are just one factor. There are probably a dozen other factors, besides table image, to consider before making any bet, including table position, betting history of that hand, pot odds, draw odds, my stack size, my overall position in the tournament, stage of the tournament, etc.
And when it all comes together and I finish in the money…what a rush! Even if I don’t finish in the money, if I played well but still came out on the short end of the odds (even when they were in my favor) then I’m happy. Poker is often won by the player who makes the least number of mistakes.
Sometimes, through sheer luck, a poor player wins a hand he shouldn’t even have been in. Some players on the losing end of this scenario become quite upset. Unless I am taken out or lose a significant portion of my stack, my attitude is that this is a positive hand. That player is now encouraged to play more poor hands and soon he will lose all those chips. Hopefully, to me!
If poor players always lost with poor hands, they’d learn not to play them and that’d be the end of easy money. There’ll usually always be good competition, but easy money is harder to find.
It’s not a mistake to play a good hand, even if in some cases it loses. In the long run, I’ll often cash in a tournament by minimizing mistakes. Often, not always; but that’s poker and… “I’m all in!”
The final table of the WSOP is tonight at 9 PM on ESPN. The first player eliminated leaves with $900,000. Everyone else will receive at least $1.2 million and the winner receives $9.1 million. The field will be narrowed to the last two players tonight and the final heads up match will be played Monday night.
For more information, including profiles of the final nine, visit the WSOP website.