Monday, February 26, 2007

Perception of Money

Last night I was playing 3-5 NL at Hollywood Park. There were a couple of slightly fishy types, but most of my opponents were regulars, including two very tight, aggressive, uncreative players. Both of these guys are very regular at Hollywood Park - I've seen them a few times before and they know all the dealers and floor people. One of the two regulars was sitting directly to my left. He was about 60 and had been folding consistently while watching and commenting on the Lakers game. Finally, he got a hand he liked. Raising preflop, he proceeded to call down another player on a rather raggety board. The other player was loosish and passive, rarely bluffing, if ever. On this hand the loose/passive player bet strongly on the flop, turn, and river. At the end he showed a set of three's. As the old regular was counting out his last bet, I think someone asked him what he had.

"Oh, nothing," he said in a frustrated, sarcastic sort of way. "Just a pair of kings. That's all. Nothing good. It's not like I had a good hand or anything." The old guy kept grumbling about it for a few minutes. Eventually, the winning player said "sorry about that" and the regular said "it's not your fault, it's just frustrating."

I'm telling this story now because it reminded me of something I wanted to write about: how automatic it has become for me to separate the money used in poker with the money I use to purchase things. Of course, it's all just money, and what can be used for one can just as easily be used for the other. However, for some reason it is perfectly natural for me to make a semi-bluff of several hundred dollars but I consider a purchase of several hundred dollar to be very significant. I'm not sure if this mental dichotomy is rational, but it does allow my otherwise tight-fisted psyche to play poker without having my judgment clouded by financial concerns. When I lose a big pot, say $1000, it barely even occurs to me that I had been playing for money. My thought is "darn, I lost," and I will often go over the hand again in my head to see if I could have played the hand any better. Contrast this with a scenario where I had just bought a computer for $2000 that I then realized I could have had for $1000. In this case I'd be immediately and acutely aware of my financial "loss," and I'd be very upset. The reason the story about the old regular reminded me of this is that I was taken aback by his apparent lack of this mental dichotomy. I see this a lot among regulars, and it never fails to amaze me. I just can't understand how they manage to stay focused on poker strategy when they are so distracted by financial concerns. My suspicion is that these players tend to be very tight, somewhat aggressive, straightforward players, as this regular was. That approach is consistent with a risk-averse, mechanical mentality that I think is characteristic of how most people behave in regards to their personal finances. They figure "if I play the best cards, I should win against worse cards, and there's not much chance for me to lose." Naturally, then, such player get upset when they do lose. At least, that's the best I can do to try to explain it. Like I said, I'm still taken aback by regular players who can't deal with swings of a few hundred dollars.

This mental dichotomy I seem to have has some potential downsides. For one thing, I don't think most of the great players have it. They tend to be gamblers who crave action. Otherwise they would never have moved up in limits quickly enough to be where they're at now. More practically, the dichotomy can cause unusual decisions when I have to pay for something with my chips, be it an implicit purchase or explicit. An example of an implicit purchase would be "paying to see." Is it worth a $100 call to see this guys hand? The answer is almost certainly "no," but when I am paying with "just chips" the prospect doesn't seem quite so ridiculous. More explicit is paying the dealer for dealing, in the form of tips. Because I'm paying in chips, it often doesn't seem so expensive to give the dealer $5. I just give the dealer $1 for every hand I win unless the pot is very small (eg just the blinds). That way I don't even have to think about it.

On a few occasions I have sold the right to see my hand after the hand was over. The most I have ever gotten for this is $35. That's right, somebody paid me $35 just to turn my cards over after they folded at the end of a hand. When sitting behind $1000 in chips this doesn't seem so much, but $35 in chips is 35 real dollars that I can buy things with. It's not considered good form to be so serious about money at the table, so I try to let my mental dichotomy manifest itself in my table demeanor. For instance, I almost never pout over a loss or celebrate a win. When it comes to making actual financial decisions, though, I try to make myself consider the actual value in terms of real money. I'm not going to turn down $35 just to hide my cards. Oftentimes I even think showing my cards actually helps my table image.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dean Zes

On Saturday I had an interesting conversation with Dave Zes, one of Brigid's classmates in the UCLA statistics department. We were having lunch after a hike and he asked me what department I was in.

"Oh, I'm not a student, I'm just here with Brigid."
"Oh, ok. So, what do you do?"
"Actually, I'm supporting myself by playing poker."

I've had this type of conversation dozens of times, with a wide range of responses. This was one of the more interesting ones.

"Oh, that's cool. My dad is a mathematician and knows a lot of those old time poker players," Dave told me. "Do you know of Chip Reese, Doyle Brunson? Those guys are like family friends. They have some really interesting stories." He went on to tell me that his dad had written some books on gaming and had contributed to some poker books. When I googled him just now it showed mostly just showed some technical math papers he had written. I didn't find much involving poker, but one thing I found is that he is mentioned in Doyle Brunson's original Super System, in the section on Lowball. The "expert" author of that section, Joey Hawthorne, says on page 185, "my draw expert, 'Crazy Mike' put me in touch with noted mathematician Dean Zes, who has probably done more work on the minimum standards of Ace-to-Five than anyone else." Despite the pedigree, Dave says he doesn't have the patience to play poker well himself.

This marks the second interesting poker-related connection involving UCLA statistics grad students. I guess it's pretty unlikely for anything to come of them, but it's cool nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I finished the tome I was reading (Godel, Escher, Bach), so now I can finally finish reading the poker books I mentioned earlier. So I should have some new fodder for some reviews soon. I'm also going to fix the site up a bit - somehow when I changed to the "New Blogger" some things got messed up. Most notably, most of my links disappeared. I'll try to remember what they were and put them back up, with possibly some new links as well.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Calling a Bluff

I haven't analyzed a hand here in a while. This would be a good time to fix that since I played a satisfying hand at Hollywood Park on Saturday. I was at the 2-3 NL, $100 buy-in game with Aaron. This particular hand was a bit short-handed, with only 7 players. I had KTo and raised to $12 from the cutoff (a much weaker hand than I usually raise with). Aaron folded on the button, the SB called, and the BB folded. The SB had about $105 left and I had him covered.

The SB hadn't been playing long but he seemed like a solid player. He had mostly just folded. but he had also won one hand that I could remember. In that hand he had played tight-aggressive with good cards. Although this makes it much less likely that I'd profit from a big mistake he would make, it also means he'd be a bit easier to read, since I could assume he was making what I would consider good decisions. So I figured he most likely had reasonably good cards here, but probably not great or else, being out of position, he would have had to have reraised me.

With the pot at $22 after the rake, the flop came 678 offsuit, giving me an inside straight draw. My opponent checked. At this point I probably didn't have the best hand. The SB may have called with a little pair, possibly as high as 7 or 8, but even 22 is ahead of me here. He also may have called with A-high. Since I raised before the flop he must expect I have reasonable hand, probably stronger than KT. I decided to continuation bet / semibluff here for $10, which I thought would make him fold A-high and maybe a little pair. He called. Pot: $42.

Turn: T, offsuit, giving me a pair of T's. After his flop call I put him on A-6,7,or8. Other possible hands were straight draws with pairs, such as 89 or 55. Maybe 9T for the straight. If he had other big hands such as 45, 66, or 78, he would probably have raised me on the flop because I'd pay him off with a big pair but possibly fold a straight draw (indeed, I would have folded KT to a check-raise on the flop). At this point my pair of tens is ahead of many of the hands he could have called with on the flop, but the ten could easily have helped his hand as well. Now he could have two pair with a ten or, even more likely, a straight. He checked.

The check is consistent with his having caught his straight, and possibly even two-pair, although two-pair would probably bet here and was already unlikely besides. If I bet now, either of these hands would would potentially check-raise me and I would have to fold. On the other hand I still think he likely has a pair with an ace, or maybe some other hand that I am still ahead of. I decided to bet $25 into the $42 pot. He called. Pot now $92.

River: A. His call on the turn made a hand like A8 very likely. This hand has just made two-pair. Most of the other hands he could have are also still ahead of me. Since he didn't raise the flop or turn, the straight or two-pair are a little less likely, but still entirely possible. At this point my opponent probably thinks I have a big pair, although a straight or set is also possible. I also may have been bluffing and have just caught a pair of aces. I'm hoping he checks and so I can just check behind him.

Instead my opponent went all-in for $72. What can I beat here? Almost nothing except a bluff. The problem is that a bluff suggests that his hand was a draw and missed, but almost all of the possible draws hit! I certainly didn't think my hand was best here, but the size of the bet made me stop and think. The bet was big enough that I could now easily lay down almost all of my likely hands, so it was probably not a good value bet if my opponent wanted me to call... suggesting maybe he's bluffing after all. Also the bet was small enough that I was still getting good odds: about 2.25 to 1. If I had better than a 31% chance of winning, the call made sense.

This is where I actually benefited from knowing my opponent was a decent player. What hands would it be reasonable for him to make this bet with? The likelihood he just caught two pair or has a straight means I can only call here with big hands such as a set or a straight. Maybe AT. All of these hands beat the hand I previously thought most likely for my opponent: A8 or A7. His all-in bet suggests these hands are very unlikely now. Since I can expect him only to make this bet with a super strong hand or a bluff, having a pair of tens is almost as good for me as having a set. It's just not at all likely he has anything in between those two hands. Now the question becomes: is there at least a 1/3 chance he's bluffing?

My initial reaction was: probably not. He probably has the straight here. There's also still a chance he had the A8 after all. Although he played the hand rather oddly, I'd watched him play fewer than 100 hands so I couldn't really be all that confident of his style. Besides, there just aren't that many hands that he could have that are worth a bluff here. Even a hand like 56 might want to just check and hope his pair of 6's beats whatever I have. I decided to look at my opponent to see if he was giving off any obvious tells that he had a big hand, such as heavy breathing. On the contrary, he was staring at the table, trying not to breathe at all! This is common among bluffers; they don't want to do anything that might convince me to call. Earlier he had been a bit more animated, so there was definitely something odd about this. Although I still thought he probably had me beat, this was enough to convince me there was at least a 1/3 chance he was bluffing. So I called, expecting to lose.

Instead, he turned over 55, and my pair of tens was good. Shocked, my opponent decided that this table was a bit too tough and left.

By the way, although he lost all his money, I think I was right about him being a good player. The only questionable play was calling my turn bet. His only out here is a 4 unless he thinks his pair of 5's is good. If I were in his situation, I probably would have folded on the turn. On the other hand, he may have been trying to set me up for the river bluff, which I actually think was an excellent idea. On there river I was ready to fold almost any hand I could conceivably have had except the straight. It was only a minor tell he gave off that allowed me to make the call, and even then it was a pretty close decision.

One more thing: in retrospect, my instinct to check on the river if my opponent had checked was probably wrong. Since I thought he either had a straight or two pair, I certainly didn't think I could win without bluffing. If I had bluffed the river, he likely would have folded two-pair (for the same reasons he must have expected I would fold to his bluff). He'd also fold if he had a worse hand than mine, so no harm done. (Actually if he thinks he has sniffed out a bluff and calls with JT or something, I would win then, too.) Since he checked the river, there was very little chance he had the straight, which was the only hand I think he would have called with! A bluff here would have very likely worked for me. Despite all this the river bluff hardly even occurred to me at the time.