Thursday, May 31, 2007

End of Slump?

After a very successful April, I'm going to have my first losing month in almost a year unless I have a truly remarkable win today. I had modest wins my last two trips, so hopefully I've broken out of the losing streak. Actually, the only respite from my losing streak has been the wins I've had recently in the HORSE game I mentioned last time - we've now had two sessions. I invited Aaron the second time, and we both won over $300 playing 3-6 limit for maybe four hours; this is a truly remarkable feat when you consider that our opponents ranged from very good to outstanding poker players. I think Razz is my new favorite game - in any case, it's the one I've gotten luckiest at.

I still haven't gotten around to reviewing No Limit Hold'em by Sklansky and Miller, and I've read most of it twice now, and I've also read The Psychology of Poker and am a quarter of the way through The Mathematics of Poker. A brief summary of my impressions: No Limit Hold'em is probably the most worthwhile book on the subject that I've come across. The first part is a useful discussion of "fundamentals," none of which is new to me, but most of which is worth thinking about again. The last part is a list of 50 "concepts" that I am considering sifting through for discussion in future posts. The Psychology of Poker has some unique material, but, disappointingly, it's targeted towards novice players. Still , there are some worthwhile points to consider like the motivations people have for playing and how to notice them. It also encourages the reader to evaluate his own motives, which may be illuminating. The Mathematics of Poker is a relatively technical discussion of game theory with the goal of training the reader's intuition in order to make better decisions at the poker table. I'm excited to read more of this - having a solid base of poker knowledge that can be proven theoretically is a great boost to confidence. Being in the midst of a losing streak, I'm relieved to be restoring my confidence by developing some solid groundwork in game theory.

Friday, May 18, 2007

HORSE Home Game

At Hollywood Park a couple weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with one of Brigid's professors. I recognized him as the one who organized the Tom Ferguson Tournament. In the ensuing email exchange, he invited me to join an online poker discussion group he's in. My impression is that most of the other members (there are over twenty, I think, but most hardly ever post) are not pros, but the guy who runs it is. The other players seem knowledgeable and thoughtful, too. It seems several of them know each other through the chess circuit, and there's at least one professional chess player. My impression is that it is a pretty impressive and worthwhile group. Anyway, while scanning the archives, I saw that they had tried to start up a HORSE game back in March but couldn't get enough people interested. I thought HORSE sounded like a good idea, so I commented that I'd be interested in playing; on Monday, about ten of us went to Brigid's professor's house to play 3-6 limit HORSE (limit Holdem, Omaha hi-low, Razz, Seven card stud, and stud hi-low Eight or better).

The group was split into two games. I think the other table was playing .50-1 HORSE. At my table was Brigid, two pros (including Danyul, who runs the group and has a poker blog of his own), and two other players who I don't think were pros but were also good players. Later on one of them left and Brigid's professor joined us.

Some of these games I hadn't played since that mixed game at the Wynn a year and a half ago. In that game we had played deuce to seven triple draw instead of stud, but other than that it was the same. Other than calling with a Q-high low hand in Stud Eight or Better, I think I did reasonably well. In case you're unfamiliar with Stud Eight or Better, half the pot goes to the low hand, but only if there is five card low to an 8. So my Q-high wasn't even eligible for the low there. My excuse is that I used to play this same game a lot in high school, except that there was no restriction on how low the low hand had to be. Also, in the version we played in high school we had to declare if we were going for the high, low, or both, and then we bet for a sixth time. A better game in my opinion, although a bit gimmicky. Actually, I like all those crazy games like Baseball and Follow the Queen. They make you think on your feet strategically because nobody ever bothers to actually analyze those games. It makes for a fun battle of wits.

The other pro at my table was a Swedish guy who is working on poker game theory with Tom Ferguson at UCLA. It turns out he was almost certainly the most accomplished player at the table. In Sweden, he tells me, the tax code requires that they report their winnings on every pot that they win! I keep track of my day-to-day net winnings, but on any given day I play hundreds, maybe thousands of hands. I can't imagine how tedious it might be to actually keep track of such a thing. I guess if you play online though you can have a program to track it automatically for you.

The game was considered a great success, and there's talk of organizing for another session, possibly even on a weekly basis. I'm going to argue for some 2-7 triple draw.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Semi-Aborted Bluff Pays Off

Often I find myself in a "weak-tight" type game at Hollywood Park that I can exploit by playing a bit loose pre-flop and then attacking weakness on the flop and turn. I was in such a game yesterday. There was one player that didn't fit the mold of "weak-tight," but as it happened, he was the easiest to extract chips from anyway. He's a regular player, an Israeli guy about 50 years old. Often he plays quite well but he is very quick to go on tilt and start playing very, very loose. He was in such a phase yesterday for most of the day, and often he was the only one calling my semi-bluff pre-flop raises of $35-60. When this was the case, I would invariably bet the flop. Every time but once he folded at this point (the other time he raised me all-in and I folded). This strategy was working so well for me that I expanded my semi-bluffing range to the extent that any observant player would become very suspicious of me.

I won one such hand in a very unorthodox manner. Pre-flop, someone had limped in early position, and I raised to $50 with 75s from middle position. A middle-aged Asian guy who I had played with quite a bit called me from the button. Everyone else folded.

With the pot at $120, the flop came something like AhQs7d. Having called my raise preflop, my opponent likely had a small pair, but there were plenty of other possibilities. I completely missed the flop, but I thought there was a good enough chance he'd fold that I decided to bet $80. In order to save time, this guy had the fairly common habit of folding his hand as soon as it became apparent that his heads-up opponent planned to bet. As I brought the chips out and started to cut it into four stacks of $20, I noticed that my opponent was just watching me. More significantly, he was not immediately folding his cards. In the absence of a premature fold on his part, the likelihood that he would fold to my bluff decreased; he was probably planning to call or raise. I decided in that split second that I would cut my losses. I had already laid out two $20 stacks, but I brought back the other $40 I had planned to bet.

This very small bet seemed to throw my opponent off. He decided to fold, presumably thinking I was trying to suck him in with a big hand like a set of Aces or Queens. This line of thinking seems rather pervasive: large bets mean bluffs, small bets mean big hands. I've been taking advantage of this realization for quite a while by blatantly betting big with good hands and small when I'm bluffing. People don't pick up on the pattern nearly as easily as you might think. In any case, the hand I just described made me realize I can probably go to even greater lengths to exploit this backward idea of respecting small bets more than larger ones. At least against certain players, it seems I can bet nearly nothing on my bluffs and I think I might get them to fold just as often.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Hustler Casino

On Saturday afternoon, I drove down to Hollywood Park like I always do, and there were five or ten times as many cars in the parking lot as there usually are, along with parking attendants. I probably should have expected as much - after all, it is a place where you can place bets on horse racing, and this was the day of the Kentucky Derby. I know the Kentucky Derby is a big deal in horse racing because I've actually heard of it. The attendant I spoke to didn't seem to be able to understand my English, and there were no parking spots in the area to which he directed me after I asked him where the self-parking for the poker room was. I decided to leave, and made my way to the Hustler.

I'd been meaning to check out the Hustler Casino for a while, but to get there I need to drive south on 405 past the exit for Hollywood Park, and it's never seemed worthwhile to drive further in LA traffic than I need to. Traffic isn't so bad on Saturday afternoon, though, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

My first impression, before I entered the casino, was that the Hustler was surprisingly small and unimpressive. I expected something rather extravagant from the outside. Once I got inside, though, I was impressed. The decor was very inviting - very high ceilings, wood paneling with large paintings on the walls, a circular floor plan with a glassed-in room in the center. There were some stairs up to a second floor in the center, which I think held a small restaurant. The place had the feel of a small upscale Vegas casino minus the hotel and depressing slot machines. There was no poker room per se, just a section of the casino where all the poker tables were. I think this is a good setup - it's not as intimidating for new players to mosey over from the blackjack tables and sign up for a seat in a poker game. In this way it reminded me of Foxwoods' poker room of three or four years ago (haven't been to Foxwoods since then). Of course, the Hustler's poker room is much smaller. Probably less than twenty tables.

Once I got in a game (2-5 NL, $100-300 buy-in), I was disappointed to see that like all the other LA poker rooms, the Hustler takes $1 from each pot for a bad-beat jackpot. Moreover, they take $5 out of each pot for the rake, whereas Hollywood Park takes just $4. With a $1-2 tip, I am giving back $7-8 of every pot I win.

After I had played an hour in this game, one of the other players announced he was going to go play in the satellite tournament, where they were awarding a $10,000 WSOP seat to the winner, regardless of the number of entries. I didn't really believe his estimation of there being "only six or seven" entrants, but considering the tournament was only $125, I thought it sounded like it might be a good deal. The tournament was starting in about two minutes, so I quickly cashed out of the $2-5 game and signed up for the tournament.

I should have done a bit more research into the tournament structure. It's true that they were guaranteeing a $10,000 seat, but there were actually over 50 people, so collectively we had already contributed well over $6000 of the $10,000 seat. Worse, this was an unlimited rebuy tournament for the first hour, along with an extra add-on at the end of the hour. Each of these $100 rebuys bought twice as many chips as the $125 buyin. This made it strategically inviable to forgo the rebuys - in other words, almost every player ended up paying between $225 and $525 for the tournament. Now the casino had plenty of money to cover the $10,000 seat. Yes, they did pay out the extra money to the 1st through 4th places, but still, the tournament was not nearly as good a deal as I'd been led to believe.

On maybe the tenth hand of the tournament, the guy to my right (who happened to be the guy I had been playing with at the $2-5 game earlier) had AK on a board of AAA74, and his opponents had 88. Quad aces beating Aces full: a bad beat jackpot! Only, of course, they don't have the bad beat jackpot for tournaments. Six months of paying a damn dollar per pot for the bad beat jackpot, and my table has never once won (everyone at the table gets part of the jackpot when it hits). Then I play in a tournament for the first time in LA, and the "jackpot" hand hits. Unbelievable.

As for the tournament, I actually made it to the final table with a sizable stack. Even so, the blinds were so large that my M was around 5. I think I got it up around 20 for one hand, but then the blinds doubled again and it was back down to 10. Then the blinds doubled yet again, and my M was down to about 3.6: 5700 dead chips in the pot, my stack at 20700. This was about the average stack size, and I was in 4th place out of 9 remaining players. One player who had been limping most hands but folding under pressure limped in early position for 2000. Everyone else folded around to me one off the button and I pushed with 86o. Usually the other four players would fold and I'd be up to 28400, giving myself a bit of breathing room. Even if I'm called, I'm still better than 2-1 to win against two overcards . Unfortunately, the big blind had me covered and pushed all in with his AQ. It held up against my 86. Had I won I'd have been up to 47100 and possibly first place.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Passive Collusion - Hollywood Park Update

A few weeks ago, upon my return from Las Vegas, I wrote about how much better it was to play poker there. For the two weeks before that, there were four or five excellent players that I would play against every day in the $400 buy in game at Hollywood Park. These players were reasonably friendly with me, but overly friendly with each other. There seemed to be a tacit agreement between a few of them that they were not going to take money from one another. When the pot became heads up between two of them, they'd show each other their hands and check it down to the river, with the winning player often giving back a significant portion of the pot. Once or twice they just split the pot in half. Technically, it's against the rules to transfer chips to another player at the table, although it's rather common for a player to give a player $5 or less for tips or friendly side bets. With such small transfers, there is no practical effect on the game, nor any implicit collusion between players. The regular players egregiously abused the leniency that had developed concerning this rule. In fact, they were quite clearly engaging in behavior that the rule is there to prevent: impure motives on the part of individual players. By "impure motives" I mean motives that are not entirely selfish. A large part of playing poker successfully involves deducing your opponents hands based on their actions, and it is generally assumed that players have only their own financial best-interests at heart. In my opinion, this individualistic aspect of poker is fundamental to the game. Although I don't think any of these players were consciously colluding to cheat the players they didn't know, they were destroying the purity of the game. Since this is a rather subtle distinction, I never felt comfortable speaking up against this behavior since I knew it would be construed as an accusation of explicit cheating.

When I got back from Las Vegas, almost all of these formerly regular players had mysteriously vanished from Hollywood Park, having been replaced by players who are much more willing to gamble. Not only has this loosened up the games and made them more profitable, but the disappearance of these unscrupulous players has also made the game much more enjoyable for me, as I primarily play poker for the strategic aspect. With the purity of the play reestablished, I'm enjoying LA poker in a lot more than I when I wrote that post on Las Vegas. I still think that Vegas poker is much better, though.