Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Long Run and Regret

One reason I thought it would be satisfying to play poker full time is that I would be able to actually realize the "long run," as in "it all evens out in the long run." Actually it doesn't ever truly even out. Thinking this way is just one manifestation of what is known as the Gambler's Fallacy. Luck just seems to even out because it all kind of runs together in your memory when enough time has passed. The truth is though that if you lose a $1000 pot you "should" have won, you are out $1000. No matter what happens for the rest of your life, you would have been $1000 richer if your opponent in that hand had not given you a "bad beat." This is a slight oversimplification since your loss of this hand actually can effect some other factors that can influence the actual poker game; for instance, if you get AA next hand and only have $100 in front of you rather than the $1100 you would have had if you'd won the previous hand, you can expect a different outcome. However, these factors aren't likely to help you win your $1000 back, and they certainly don't validate the gambler's fallacy.

Still, there is some sense in which luck actually does even out in the long run. However, that requires looking at "luck" in a different sort of way: averaged over your entire playing career. Luck averages out for your win rate, not your total winnings. For example, if you play just one hand of 20-40 limit, it's quite unlikely you'll lose $1000, but it's not unlikely that you will lose $200, making your win rate -$200/hand. If you play 99 more hands, it's now much more likely you will have lost $1000, but you are very, very unlikely to still have a win rate as low as -$200/hand. So luck actually does even out with respect to your win rate.

Playing every day and keeping close track of my win rate helps me to focus on my win rate rather than my bottom line. After playing 3000 hours, you need to lose $3000 just to change your win rate by $1. I like to think in terms of pot equity, which I think is the most direct way to arrive at appropriate pot- and implied-odds decisions. For example, in limit poker, players will often say things like "it didn't matter that I didn't bet on the turn, because he would have called and hit his flush anyway. I just would have lost more money if I'd bet there." While true, this type of comment shows a lack of understanding of either randomness or pot equity. The correct analysis would be something like this: "There were 44 possible cards that could come on the river. I win when 35 of them come out, and my opponent wins when the other 9 come out. Therefore a $40 bet here is worth about $40 * (35/44) - $40 * (9/44) , or about $24." So in fact, the player with the best hand is missing out on $24 worth of pot equity if he doesn't bet. Thinking in terms of pot equity also helps to put "bad beats" into perspective. The inclination to think "I should have won that pot" fades away. For instance, if the player who hit his two-outer was all-in on the flop, then he probably actually had about a 8.5% chance to win the $1000 pot. So really I only had $915 equity. I was unlucky to lose, but only $915 unlucky, not $1000 unlucky. Interestingly, even most good players fail to see the game this way and lose their cool at the slightest misfortune.

To get back to my original point, I think a big part of my advantage over common players is my ability to naturally think about poker decisions this way. It also helps to see just how little control a poker player has over his results in a particular session. Sure, I bet the turn which is technically a $24 EV play, but the "luck" factor is what ultimately determines who wins the $240 pot. It takes a while for even quite profitable plays like this one to make a big difference in your bottom line.

The reason I wanted to bring all this up is that something occurred to me a few months ago while I was reading The Paradox of Choice by my college professor Barry Schwartz. His thesis is essentially that although we generally think of choice as a good thing, there are many aspects of our lives where we've reached a sort of critical mass of choice beyond which any additional options are actually deleterious to our well-being. Part of his argument is that having choices forces people to consider opportunity costs. In other words, having to consider the question "what am I missing?" actually makes it harder for us to enjoy whatever we are doing. I've noticed that thinking about poker in a rational way has become more difficult now that I have other viable choices. In Las Vegas there was almost nothing for me to do except get up and go play poker every day. On the weekends I would occasionally get a call from friends inviting me to a club or lounge, but because the running shoes I always wear prohibit me from entering most clubs, I didn't experience much ambivalence about staying in my poker game. Now that I live in Los Angeles, where the weather permits my being outside for more than 5 minutes at a time and where I have a girlfriend and another friend who like to hang out on the weekends, playing poker is no longer my only option. I find myself thinking, "if I turn down hanging out with my friends in favor of playing poker, what a waste it would be if I don't even win!" All of a sudden I'm thinking in terms of the short-run again! Worse, I suspect that having to consider more significant opportunity costs may be lessening my enjoyment of playing. An overall increase in the quality of my options seems to be hindering my enjoyment of any of them.

If I'm making decisions about when to play based on avoiding regret, am I in danger of starting to make decisions on how to play based on avoiding regret? Will I make plays that maximize volatility when I'm losing and minimize it when I'm winning? Will I become the guy who bets $100 into a $15 pot with his set of aces just to avoid the chance someone will draw a flush? Or maybe the guy who will keep playing until he finally gets back to even for the day? I can't really imagine it ever coming to that, but I'm still a bit disappointed that I'm concerning myself with short term results in any capacity.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hollywood Park Casino

Last post I explored the possible reasons why I didn't like playing at the Commerce. It's not really a horrible place but since I was focusing on the negatives I suppose I made it seem like I thought it was. In any case, I continued going there because I had heard bad things about the closer casino, Hollywood Park. Specifically, I had heard "it's a dump." I'd been there three or four times, but somehow I was still thinking of it in the context of what I had been told instead of forming my own opinion on it. Since I started thinking more critically about the Commerce and decided to look for alternatives, I thought I should give Hollywood Park another chance. I actually think it's quite similar to the Commerce. It has many of the same problems that I saw at the Commerce: gaming industry rather than tourist industry focus, anonymous feel, unclean restrooms, silly "jackpots," and some obnoxious patrons. Upon further review though, I couldn't see any other major drawbacks to Hollywood Park. There are several minor drawbacks that I'll elucidate here.

One minor problem is that Hollywood Park has no tables at very high limits, and it doesn't attract a high-profile crowd like the Commerce can. This eliminates any chance of my having a Nicky/Bijou type experience there. This would have been quite unlikely at the Commerce, too, because the high limits are in a completely separate room, so I would never get a chance to see them come in (lower limit room ends at 5-10 NL). The Commerce waiting lists are slightly more smoothly administered. (At Hollywood Park Brigid and I were once on the 4-8 limit list together and once we got to the top of the list they opened a new game. When we got there the table was completely full and we were shut out despite having been at the top of a rather lengthy list.) Hollywood Park lacks also lacks shuffling machines. I guess another problem with Hollywood Park is that to get inside you have to either walk a rather long distance from the parking lot or climb a steep hill, which is what I usually end up doing. I suppose the lack of an adequate entrance justifies the "dump" description to some extent. One night it also smelled like horse manure in the parking lot (Hollywood Park is a race track with a casino attached). Another reason it was called a "dump" may be due to some racist inclinations from players whom I'd asked about the place; there are far more black people at Hollywood Park than any other casino I've ever seen. To some, this may, unfortunately, give off a feeling of being lower class or something like that.

There are some advantages to Hollywood Park. For me, of course, it's closer. Most of the dealers and other employees are fluent in English. In general, the other players are not nearly as obnoxious as at the Commerce. This is especially true at the lowest limits, which is important because the situation in those games is so bad at the Commerce that Brigid could hardly stand playing there anymore. Hollywood Park seems to only take a $4 rake even at 3-5 NL and up, where the Commerce now takes $5. Hollywood Park also has a comp system that gives, I think, $1 credit every hour. I'm not sure if that's quite right since I've never tried to use it.

The most important factors to me are: driving distance, profitability of the games, and enjoyment factor. Since the profitability is about the same at both places, the Commerce would have to be much more enjoyable to make up for the driving time. Considering the obnoxiousness of the players there, the Commerce's enjoyment factor just doesn't cut it. I think I'm going to start playing at Hollywood Park most of the time.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Commerce Casino

This post has been a rather long time coming. The Commerce Casino has been my most frequent playing location since September, and in the past I've usually gotten casino reviews up after playing there just a few times. In the case of the Commerce, though, I haven't quite been able to settle on what my own opinion of the place is. I've never been able to feel completely at ease at the Commerce, or at least not as comfortable as I am in any of the poker rooms in Vegas or even Atlantic City or Foxwoods. Recently I decided to put some more thought into it and discuss it with some friends. Here is what I've come up with:

The Commerce is not a tourist destination. It attracts locals. This immediately sets its whole business focus apart from Las Vegas casinos. It seems to consider itself to be primarily in the gaming/entertainment industry, while Vegas casinos are primarily in the tourist industry. I don't really know anything about either industry, but this may help to explain some why the feel of the two places seems fundamentally different. The Vegas casinos are extraordinarily inviting and friendly, while the Commerce kind of feels sparse and anonymous. The walls are covered with promotional advertisements instead of attractive murals or artwork.

Another thing about the commerce is that about 60% of the players, 75% of the floor people, and 98% of the dealers are Asian. Now, I have no problem with Asians in general. In fact almost all of my non-Jewish friends are Asian (I'm neither). The problem is that while all of my friends speak fluent English (except Ben, who speaks British), only about 2% of the Asians at the Commerce speak fluently. In my opinion, it's important to be able to speak clearly when you are in a service industry. It is annoying for me to have to think for a few seconds after each sentence spoken to me before I can decipher what I am being told. This is no knock on the employees themselves. I have quite a bit of respect for them, as I imagine it's a challenge to make a new life for oneself in a foreign land where you don't speak the language. This, however, doesn't change the fact that it makes the experience at the Commerce less pleasant for me. Another thing that is nobody's fault but is rather annoying for me is that my initials are "KW". When spoken with an Asian accent, almost every pair of letters ending with W sounds like "KW," and a lot of Asian people seem to have last names beginning with W. The result is that every thirty seconds I think I hear my initials being called.

The other players are generally a lot less pleasant at the Commerce than in Vegas, although this is much more pronounced at lower limits than the games I play. Again this probably traces back to the Commerce being a gaming industry more than tourist. In Vegas I'm playing with people who genuinely like poker but who don't often get a chance to go to a casino. These people are on vacation and having a good time, so they are often interesting and pleasant to talk to. At the Commerce everyone is local and, especially at the low limits, seem to be playing because they've given up on their lives and they just want to gamble, but there are no slot machines to play. All of those miserable would-be slot machine players have taught themselves poker. I can't ignore them like I did in Vegas. Now I have to sit with them. Some of these people get unfathomably angry at every non-winning hand as well as the player who won instead. They disrupt the game by shouting and banging the table. The non-English-speaking dealers are completely disregarded when they try to regain order at the table. Then the obnoxious player might win a hand, become friendly, and try to make conversation with me. Suddenly I'm in the awkward situation of actually having to socialize with him. The problem is so bad at the lowest limits that my girlfriend is hardly even willing to play. I might not be willing to either if I played 4-8 limit and lower. Those people are truly horrible. In the no limit games I play the situation is not nearly so bad, although many of the players there are apparently unabashed cocaine users, although these people usually aren't particularly unpleasant.

Another problem is that the employees at the Commerce are generally not as friendly or accommodating as the ones in Vegas poker rooms. This exacerbates the feeling of anonymity in the enormous rooms of the Commerce.

Okay, on to the standard review format.

Games I play: $2-3 NL with $100 buyin; $3-5 NL with $200 buyin; $5-10 NL with $400 buyin.
$2-5 NL $100-500 buy-in

Enormous room, usually about a 5 minute wait to play.

Parking is not well marked but there are usually spots somewhat near the "front" door, and always spots to be found if you are willing to walk a bit. The real problem is the drive to the Commerce, which is impossible between 2:30 pm and 6:30 pm.

Bathrooms nearby, but usually unusably disgusting if you aren't using a urinal.

Rather unpleasant opponents, but this problem is not as bad at higher limits. Slightly loose aggressive players on average.

Floor people are unhelpful. Dealers are competent but have difficulty with English.

Shuffling machines and well-maintained cards and tables.

Food is mediocre but low-price compared to Vegas. It is very common for players to eat at the table.

Rake is highest I have ever seen. All other casinos I know of take at most $4 out of each pot. The Rio was among the worst, taking the fourth dollar out when the pot reaches $40 while the Wynn takes out the fourth dollar at $120 I think. As of last week, the Commerce now rakes $5 at 3-5 NL and higher. All tables also take $1 a hand for the jackpot, of which the Commerce keeps as much as 25% in administrative fees I think. If you actually win a jackpot, you are expected to tip a bit as well. Thus about $5.25 of each pot goes back to the Commerce and its employees, and this is before tips! With tipping it's more like $6.25. If you're a good player, the jackpot is even worse for you because you are now competing for .75 of the $1 jackpot fee in a game of pure chance (ie, the jackpot) rather than competing for the full $1 in a game of skill (ie, poker). I go to the casino to play poker, and I'm forced to submit myself to negative-sum lottery on every hand. The only benefit I can see is that the jackpots occasionally make the other players play poorly.

I think I'm going to start going to Hollywood Park Casino more. It has less appealing atmosphere, but only marginally. On the other hand, it's a quicker drive and people there can generally speak English. I might also try the Hustler Casino, which is a bit further.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Counterfeit $100 Bill from The Wynn

Way back in June 2006, I cashed out for about $1000 at the cashier cage in the poker room at the Wynn casino. As they were being counted out, I noticed one of the bills didn't look quite right. If I had just said something then, I certainly could have gotten a different bill in place of that one. I said nothing.

The next day I decided to inspect the bill more closely. It says it was series 1996, so I pulled out another 1996 $100 bill to compare it. It was immediately clear that not only was this bill counterfeit, but the quality of the counterfeiting was appallingly low. United States currency has all sorts of security measures, and this bill fails on all counts. It makes me laugh now to look at it because it's so obviously fake and whoever made it clearly just didn't even try to overcome the security measures (yes, I still have the counterfeit and am looking at it right now). I mean, I noticed something wrong with it from behind the counter at the Wynn cashier cage, even though I only glimpsed it for a split second as it was being counted out for me. Upon further inspection, I found the paper was far too stiff, the colors faded. Where the designs got even a little bit fine, the details were mushed together or caused moire patterns on the counterfeit bill. Most damning was the absence of the security thread and the water mark. Out of curiosity I checked for the tiny red and blue fibers that all U.S. currency has, and those were missing too. As if that weren't enough, Joe bought me a pen designed to change color depending on whether the bill is real, and, of course, it failed.

After showing the bill to my friends for curiosity's sake, I decided I'd report the bill to the Secret Service, who are supposed to handle counterfeiting as well as protecting the president (not sure how those seemed related enough to give both responsibilities to a single agency). I figured this might get the Wynn casino in some trouble (after all, it is a federal offense to pass counterfeits), and that they might be interested to know they had obvious counterfeits slipping through their system, so I decided to stop by the poker room first and let them know. I also thought there was some outside chance they would reimburse me my $100, but I wasn't expecting it. So, in late July, with my ridiculous looking $100 bill stuck in my back pocket, I walked up to the customer service desk at the back of the Wynn poker room to tell them about the bill.

"Hi, who do you think I could talk to about the fact that I received a counterfeit bill from your cashier cage?" I expected I might be referred to this employee's boss or some other authority figure, or be given a number to call. Instead I was directed to talk to a cashier at the cashier cage! There, I could discuss this issue with the people who are at the bottom of the casino staff's pecking order except for the janitorial staff. Well, I figured, at least a cashier might be able to direct me to someone who might actually be worth speaking with. So, I walked the 10 feet over to the cashier cage.

"Hi, I received a counterfeit bill from here. Who do you think I could talk to about this?" I asked. The cashier looked at me like I was insane.

"We can't help you with that."

"I just thought you might like to know," I said. For some reason the cashier was suddenly angry with me.

"You know, it's a federal offense to even be carrying a counterfeit bill," she sternly informed me. The bill was still in my back pocket, out of view, and I had made no indication that I actually had it on hand.

"Um, okay," was all I could think to say, and I turned and left. As I walked back to my car, I tried to figure out what had just happened. Was this really how the casino wants their employees treating their guests in this situation? Their only concern seemed to be to get me to leave them alone as soon as possible. I was suddenly angry then, and I turned around and marched back to the poker planning to complain. I was a regular player at the casino, why would they treat me like this? When I got to the poker room, I looked around and couldn't decide who to approach or what to say. My plight suddenly seemed petty, and I didn't quite know how to explain the problem or what I wanted them to do. After milling about looking upset for about 5 minutes, I finally just went to my car and drove home.

On August 4th, I finally got around to calling the Secret Service. At this point I was upset with the Wynn and was hoping my report would initiate an investigation. A person at the Secret Service actually answered my call. She told me it was after hours (it was 5:37 pm), but that she could take some information and they would call me back. I gave them my name and number, the denomination of the bill in question ($100), whether I work for a company (no), and where I got the bill (Wynn casino). Then it was just a matter of waiting for them to call me back.

Well, I didn't hear from them that week, or the next, or the next month, or ever. Today, five months later, I finally got around to calling them back. Assuming that the Secret Service was a streamlined organization, I expected them to ask me for some of the same information I gave them last time. Instead, the line of questioning was entirely different. In fact, they never even asked me where I got the bill. Instead, I was asked, "are you bringing the bill in?" as if this was simply a matter of personal preference and that I had already decided. Not having any idea what my alternatives were, nor exactly what it meant to bring the bill in, I replied, "what do you mean?"

"Oh, do you have a bank account?"


"Okay, well, you can bring the bill in to a bank and they will process it for you. How do you know the bill is counterfeit?"

"It looks wrong and doesn't have the security features. Also, I used one of those pens that change color for counterfeits."

"Hmmm, those pens don't work. Can you hold? I'm gonna go ahead and run it."

"Sure," I replied, not knowing what "run it" meant but liking the sound of it. Now we're getting somewhere! When she came back on the line, she asked me to read her some of the numbers on the bill, which I guess she entered into a computer. Yes, the bill is most likely counterfeit, she told me. I should bring it to the bank so they can process it. I think they will give me some sort of form to fill out. That was the end of the cconversation.

I think it's very likely that the cashiers themselves were the ones introducing the bills into circulation. They handle bills all day long, so they would certainly have noticed such a strange looking and feeling bill as they counted it out, which they do twice before handing it to me. Also, the casinos seem pretty rigorous about inspecting all their bills as they come in, and if they got it from the bank, the bill would have had to have slipped through their nets as well. This all seems implausible considering how absurd the bill looks and how many filters it must have passed through. Much more beleivable to me is that the cashiers have contacts outside the casino for whom they distribute these counterfeits. Then they could slip them in after the other bills had all been screened. This would also explain the hostility of the cashier when I returned a month later. She certainly seemed inexplicably eager to get me to leave, and nobody seemed to want me to take this information to higher ups at the Wynn.

I am really hoping that the form has some place to report where I got the bill. Frankly, though, I am very disappointed with practically every step of this ordeal, and I have lost faith in anybody even attempting to "solve" the crime, let alone listen to what I have to say. I'll give you an update if there is anything more to add. In the meantime, I am inclined to continue avoiding the Wynn.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Pinky Nail

What is the deal with guys leaving one or both pinky nails extra long? At first I thought there were just a few creepy guys at the poker tables in Vegas who wanted them to peel oranges or something. In Vegas I saw about one of these a month; at the Commerce in LA, there is an average of about one of these guys per table. The tend to be middle eastern or Asian guys in their 30's or 40's. Brigid's Turkish friend says she thinks it's "a pimp thing... or a macho thing." Has anybody else noticed this or do you have any information about it? I am absolutely unwilling to ask someone who actually has it, so I'm depending on reader comments here.