Saturday, December 30, 2006

Two New Books

I just got back from a trip home for Christmas. I got two new poker books that I'm pretty excited about, but it may be a while before I get to them. One is the new No Limit Hold 'em: Theory and Practice by David Sklansky and Ed Miller. The books in the Harrington series are the only ones I know of other than this one that focus on no-limit, and those are meant to be for tournament play. As Sklansky says in the introduction, no-limit games are rather fluid, in the sense that there are very few simple, generalizable rules. He says he's resisted writing a no-limit book because, unlike his other books, he doesn't think that most people will be able to just read this one and then go out and be a winning player. Other, unteachable skills play too large a role. Since no-limit is so hugely popular, this had been a rather glaring hole in the Two-Plus-Two library.

The other book is The Psychology of Poker by Alan Schoonmaker, with Sklansky listed as a "Strategy Consultant.". I minored in psychology in college, focusing mainly on decision theory. I think I'll have a lot to say about this book, but it remains to be seen whether I'll agree with Schoonmaker's analysis and whether his ideas will add much to my game. Schoonmaker has a Ph.D. from Berkeley in industrial psychology (not sure what that is), so he at least has an impressive resume and should have a much larger knowledge base than I do. His Bio says he likes playing low limit games, where the playing styles are less homogeneous. Also, players tend to be more willing to reveal their thoughts and emotions in these games. The hope is that this has allowed him to learn more about player's motivations.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Harrington on Hold'em Volume III

I've only written one book review so far for this blog, but it seems like good fodder for some future posts. The thing is, I haven't actually read any poker books in the past two months; I've been reading some other non-fiction things recently and I find it hard to keep track of the ideas if I'm reading too many books at once. The most recent poker book I've read is Harrington on Holdem Volume III: The Workbook. Being the third book in a series and more just a series of problems than an actual book, this isn't the ideal book to start with, but it's still moderately fresh in my mind, so I'm going to start with it anyway.

Like the first two volumes of HoH, I found Volume III to be rather disappointing but still quite valuable. The book quizzes us on 50 tricky tournament hands, many of them plucked from actual hands played by Ivey, Negreanu, Hellmuth, Hansen, and others. We are put in the position of one player, and at each decision point we are given multiple choices. After the hand, Harrington provides discussion of his thoughts on each decision, and gives you a score depending on your answers.

Even without any of Harrington's discussion, I think this book would be worth the read. You could probably find these hands online without going to the trouble of getting the book, but Harrington does a nice job of selecting interesting hands, and it's convenient to have them set up in the format of a quiz. Sure, you don't really need a poker pro like Harrington to format hands like this for you, but in any case, I found it enlightening to compare my own decisions with those actually made by top players.

Harrington's discussion and scoring system, however, are often frustrating. This book (and indeed, the three volume set of books) had enormous potential. Harrington is a very cerebral player, which makes his style ideal for teaching. Many of the top pros seem to use skills that "can't be taught," or at least would probably be very difficult to teach. Harrington emphasizes a lot more explicit analysis of pot odds and hand reading. In my opinion, this is an excellent approach, and his books are at their best when he delves most deeply into these strategies. More often than not, however, Harrington's discussions fail to take advantage of the deep analytic abilities he possesses and occassionally displays. Instead, we get comments such as "you probably have the best hand, so you should call," advice which can easily be shown not to be universally sound. Indulge me in the following counter-example to this justification for calling:

Suppose I have TT and raise preflop. An opponent rereaises me all-in and I determine he has the following types of hands at these rates:

AA-JJ, 45% of the time (I am losing and will win only about 18% of the time)
TT-22, 5% of the time (I'm ahead and will about 81% of the time)
Two overcards like AJ or KQ, 45% of the time (I'm ahead and will win 57% of the time)
Bluff or one overcard 5% of the time (I'm ahead and will win about 73% of the time)

In this situation, I have the best hand 55% of the time, but I will win only 39.3% of the time. Even though I usually have the better hand (55% of the time), if my opponent's raise was twice the size of the pot or more, I do not have pot odds to call (and the volatility of calling would make calling that much worse). Nonetheless, Harrington is willing to put the idea "you have the best hand, so you should call" into his book. When Harrington passes such simplistic advice off as analysis, I feel rather cheated. I realize that not every situation justifies a detailed equity analysis, but that doesn't excuse him from trying to justify his opinions with clearly faulty logic. The danger here is that his readers will read "we probably have the best hand, so we should call" and think that this faulty logic applies universally. It doesn't, Harrington surely knows it doesn't, but he doesn't seem to care enough about his readers to avoid claiming that it does. As I recall, Harrington's three books abound with faulty justifications like this. My advice: if you read these books and Harrington makes a general strategy claim, don't believe it unless he justifies it.

The other thing that frustrated me was Harrington's scoring system. Each answer of a multiple choice is given a certain number of points. This is fine and good. The problem is that no effort is put into making the scores correlate with the quality of the decision. Often, in the discussion, he will express some difficulty in deciding between, say, choices A and B, not even considering C because it is clearly bad. Then he concludes that A is best, assigns that answer 4 points, but awards zero points to both B and C. I find myself thinking, "Come on now, Dan, you know choices B and C do not display equal levels of decision making. In your discussion you strongly considered B, while C is clearly a terrible choice! Surely they should not be awarded the same number of points! Why not give answer B 2 or 3 points?" Then in another hand, he will award 1 or 2 points for an alternate answer, but it is quite arbitrary when he decides to do this. The end result is that the point system and the ambitious "Categorizing Your Errors" section are rendered useless. I think these could have been effective features if Harrington had put more effort into the scoring system.

HoH3: The Workbook provides worthwhile opportunities to practice and analyze your play. Just don't take Harrington's pithy analysis too seriously, and don't bother using the book's scoring system to score your choices.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Table Image: First Impressions (in case anybody's actually watching)

I haven't been playing as much recently, but today I got rudely awakened around 2 pm because Brigid and her friends wanted to go to the Commerce. Despite only having gotten 5 hours of sleep, I decided to join them.

Since I was rather tired, I resolved to play more conservatively because this takes somewhat less brainpower, and gives me fewer chances to make mistakes. When I have a specified regimen like this (which is rare), I think it can be a good idea to start the session by playing the exact opposite style. That way, if anyone's paying attention, they'll get an inaccurate first impression. This is useful because, psychologically, people vastly overemphasize their first impressions of others when trying to judge them later. The problem with this strategy is that it's pretty likely nobody is actually paying any attention to me, and I might end up sacrificing some equity on these early hands for "image advertising" that nobody even notices.

Come to think of it, I used a similar "strategy" in my first ever casino poker experience. A good portion of my poker reading up to that point was from this page by Mike Caro. Caro is an excellent poker thinker and a good writer (check out his canonical Book of Tells), but he puts an awful lot of emphasis on managing table image. Thus, so did I. When I sat down at the 2-4 limit table at Foxwoods that fateful day three years ago, I decided to spend my first 20 minutes or so playing like a maniac, raising preflop and on the flop most hands. My impression from Caro was that most players play too loosely, and that by making myself seem loose and aggressive, I would encourage them to play even more loosely against me. In retrospect, I realize this was overkill to the extent that when I finally reverted to my standard tight playing style, it must have been plainly obvious that I was not playing maniacally anymore. As it happened, though, I had a two hour long run of great cards and managed to win $320 that night, a pretty ridiculous amount for only about 4 hours of 2-4 limit.

Today this strategy has been pared down to trying to show one hand that I played aggressively
enough for the other players to notice and, hopefully, even discuss amongst themselves ("Q9s? Didn't he raise to $20 before the flop? That guy's nuts!"). I'll only do this until I manage to show such a hand; then I just revert to my standard strategy. The idea, of course, is to encourage people to give me action after I've switched gears and started playing only premium cards.

My first time under the gun I got a good opportunity to do put the plan into action. Playing 3-5NL with $200 behind, I got K6 diamonds and raised to $20. I got four callers, so the pot had $100.

Flop: Qd 7d 5c, giving me a flush draw. Deciding this hand would be a good chance to either take the pot with a semi-bluff, or get called and show my hand, I bet $60 and got one caller. Pot now $220.

Turn: 2s. With my flush draw, I pushed in for my last $110. If he folds 1/3 of the time or more, this is profitable for me even if my draw never comes when he calls me (in actuality I will hit my flush about 1/5 of the time, and there's a chance I would win with a K also). Since he didn't raise the turn, it seemed likely he'd fold to a big bet. Besides, I kind of wanted to have to show the hand for the image reasons I just discussed. Anyway, he folded and I mucked. (Why not show this hand? Well, not only is it kind of bad etiquette to show bluffs, I think it makes people suspicious that I am trying to set them up if I show. Of course, they would be right, so that would defeat the purpose.)

A round went by without any good opportunities for aggression, so I decided to just forget it and play conservatively. Maybe my previous all-in move would suffice, despite not getting to show it. Besides, I'd been there over 20 minutes and so the "first impression" opportunities had more or less expired. Then, on the button, I got 45o, and limped behind 3 other limpers. The big blind raised to 15, and we all called except the small blind. Pot: ~$75.

Flop: Ac 3h 5c. The big blind bet $50 and got two callers in front of me. With about $290 left, I pushed all-in (a $240 raise into a $275 pot). I figured even if the BB had AK, he'd have to consider folding with three opponents saying they have hands, and one of them (me) representing at least 2 pair. The other players would actually be correct to draw at a flush, but in my experience, people have a psychological hangup about calling big all-in bets on draws, even if the odds call for it (calling on draws is generally perceived as an amateurish play, and it's common for people to be ridiculed for it at the table, regardless of whether the play was actually -EV). Even if AK is out there and calls, I still have 9 outs to win (almost 35%). Anyway, the first two players folded, and the third called. I showed my hand... My opponent showed Qc 6c, and he missed. I pulled in a nice pot of $750+ with a pair of 5's, no kicker. Also, although it didn't quite have the "first impression" quality, I think it did make a bit of an impression on the rest of the table.

About 2 rounds later, I had an outstanding run of cards, winning about 8 of 11 straight hands. I don't know if my previous play had anything to do with it, but I got a ton of action on those hands and increased my stack from $700 to about $1500. After only 2 hours, Brigid's friends were ready to go, so I didn't have any time to lost anything back... good day at the office.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

More Interesting Home Game?

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with one of Brigid's statistics friends, Robert, with whom I occasionally discuss poker. Robert's cousin is some sort of Hollywood insider, though I didn't quite understand how. Anyway, supposedly Robert's cousin plays in a home game run by, I think, Danny Masterson, who I saw at the Bellagio poker room once with James Woods. Robert has never played in it, but he made it sound like he could probably get himself, and possibly me, invited. I think I would feel horribly out of place in such a game, but it would probably be fun and would certainly be interesting.

Monday, December 04, 2006

November Void

Wow, I failed to make a single post in November! For a while I had been trying to write at least one post a week, whether I had anything to say or not. Having overslept that metaphorical weekly blogging alarm a few times in the past few months, I neglected even bothering to set the alarm last month, and I didn't wake up until now. I know that several months ago I had several (i.e. at least 3) loyal readers. I appreciate your interest and comments, so I apologize for not holding up my end of the unspoken bargain. I'm going to reset my alarm now and see if I can't get this up and running again.

The last time I played casino poker was November 16, so I guess that partly explains why I haven't been inspired to write, at least the past couple weeks. I know this date because I keep track of my results in an excel spreadsheet, complete with a "notes" column in case someday I want to know, for instance, if I tend to play better when I have a friend with me or when I'm alone, or if I just want to remind myself of when certain events happened. The rest of the information pertains mostly to my hours and income. So far I've resisted requests for more details on my personal hourly wage and other such topics, despite conceding the fact that it would certainly make the blog more interesting.

Anyway, on November 16, I was at Hollywood Park Casino (traffic was too thick to bother driving to the Commerce - couldn't spare an extra hour and a half) playing 3-5 NL holdem. There were two rather small men in cowboy hats at my table who seemed a bit too loose preflop, but too tight thereafter. They turned out to be pretty discerning players besides those two tendencies. More interestingly, they were actually jockeys at the Hollywood Park race track! (Expect more moderately worthy stories such as this in the coming weeks.)

Since that day I've actually played poker twice, both times back home in Lexington Mass where I was for Thanksgiving. The first day brought together the three guys (Alex, Alex, and Matt) I played with back in high school about 3 nights a week, plus another friend, Taylor, who used to play with us pretty often, too. (Hey, I could probably use some stories from back in the day for a post or two!) I lost $7. The next night I went out expecting not to play any poker, but when I arrived, a poker game was just starting up with a bunch of old high school friends/acquaintances, some of whom were very inexperienced. I won $110. Both nights I think we were playing $.50-1 NL.

I've been sick most of the time since I got back to LA, but I seem to be better now, so hopefully I'll have some more actual poker to talk about soon. I also still have a lot of ideas jotted down for posts to make in the absence of any interesting news to report.

Expect another post within a week: now that I've backed myself into a corner, I think I'll probably be too ashamed to avoid posting, at least for a week or two. I'll assume at least one or two people will have read this by then.