Sunday, May 17, 2009

It was 20 years ago last Monday...

...that I flew from London, the city of my birth, to Baltimore. I had two suitcases, $600 and a freshly-minted PhD in Theoretical Cosmology. The European Space Agency had very kindly given me a postdoctoral fellowship to work at the Space Telescope Science Institute. My plan was simple. Spend three years in the U.S. building my academic credentials then get back to London to resume normal life.

My plans often get derailed. Instead of moving back to London after my fellowship was completed I moved to Toronto for two years during which time the town experienced five winters. In my opinion it's the ugliest city in North America. And I have visited Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron.

For the last fifteen years I have lived in Kansas. I'm not sure why. I moved here because my second wife had a job at the University of Kansas, but she left the state a decade ago. I am fond of thunderstorms, but that seems a fairly thin reason to live in the middle of nowhere. Its main geographical advantage in the U.S. is that it's half way to everywhere else.

About three years ago I developed another plan of moving to Vegas. It's the obvious city for me to live. People go there with the idea that they have money to "spend" on gaming. It's always a joy to my ears when I'm sitting at McCarran airport on the way home and hear people explain that they are down a few hundred on the trip but "where else can you have that many hours of fun for $600?" If only all of them played poker.

Which brings me to my idea for the perfect casino. The poker room at most casinos tends to be located fairly centrally. This is because for the most part casinos don't like poker players. We take up a lot of space, the games require dealers and floor (managers - all parts of the casino require a physical floor with the possible exception of the area around Keno where falling to one's death may be better than playing the game) who have to be paid, and the drop from the game is relatively small. By putting the card room in a central location it makes it less likely punters walking through the casino "trying their luck" at slots and table games will stumble across it inadvertently and compound the problem of the poker presence. Perhaps counter-intuitively the outer parts of the casino act as an area of distraction.

The flipside to this is that I can readily find the poker room in a casino that I haven't previously visited, so my plan is to leave the current location alone. However, it is of some importance that those compassionate tourists who are happy to spend a few hundred on losing are encouraged to find the poker room.

I envision the following scheme. At each casino entrance, as well as the region by the guest elevators, boring slot machines should be placed. These form the beginning of slot-lined walkways all of which lead like spokes to the poker room. Moving around the casino floor towards table games will be rendered difficult by this arrangement, thereby discouraging people from getting involved with blackjack and roulette. As one progresses up the walkways the slot machines will become more interesting. Shit doesn't run uphill and neither does money so this is necessary in order to funnel people towards the poker room. Drinks will also improve as one moves along the walkways. The more attractive cocktail waitresses will be positioned at the poker room end. Small pies and candy will start to appear as one gets closer to the convergence of the spokes.

You may object to this plan on the grounds that the increasing quality of slot machines and perks may cause people to stall out before reaching the poker room. There are a couple of things to understand here. First, one can classify visitors to casinos into two groups: those who are happy to sit in front of slot machines like automatons for sixteen hours at a time surviving only on candy, small pies, and watered down drinks, and those who get bored of slots and investigate table games. I regard the dedicated slot players as individuals who are beyond the reach of poker (and probably beyond hope of any kind). Consequently my plan only applies to the second category of people and even the dimmest have figured out that candy, small pies and watered down drinks are portable.

In this way people will tend to find themselves in front of the poker room. Currently most poker rooms appear a little unfriendly from the outside. They tend to be designed for people who know ahead of time that they want to play poker and who have some idea of the processes involved in signing up for a game. In addition to making that process more user-friendly, possibly employing more complementary small pies, I envision a large sign being placed at the front of the poker room that reads "Poker! It's Great Fun! Come In And Try Your Luck!" (It's important to give the impression to recreational players that poker is mainly luck. That way they feel better about themselves when they lose.)

There is one further element to my plan. Every poker room will spread limit Omaha high-low, $5/10 with a full-kill. The table will be placed near an exit so I don't have far to go for smoke breaks. And whenever I visit a particular card room all other pros will be asked to leave. They won't object. This plan will make them a fortune.

So why have I not moved to Vegas? I think it's clear from the above that I have the right sort of mind for the place. There are two reasons.

First, I have a Maine Coon cat, Zoot. He is sixteen and has been with me longer than my two ex-wives put together. (Incidentally, the possibility of combining my two ex-wives into a single super-being may have interesting military implications, but I will return to that idea in a later blog.) I simply can't put Zoot through the trauma of moving.

Second, despite my constant mention of what a great place Vegas is to live particularly for individuals working in the general area of mental health, my psychotherapist shows no interest in moving there. I really have enough problems as it is without going through the grueling process of finding someone else to help me solve my problems. Besides I'd miss her.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Poker isn't about winning and losing (Part I)'s about making the right decisions. Also sprach Doyle Brunson and given my current ROI I'm not going to argue with him.

In some ways the idea is self-evident. We play poker with the long-term goal of winning, but the way we actually get there is by making correct decisions. And extrapolating the concept we can reasonably conclude that the most successful poker players are the ones who make the most correct (either the largest number of correct or the 'correctest') decisions.

I'd like to apologize for my pedantic and stilted prose today. This afternoon I spent 45 minutes talking to my insurance agent.

So how do I become a better poker player? How do I make more correct decisions?

I suspect if you asked poker players why someone like Chris Ferguson or Jen Harman is so good at the game the answers would include experience, knowing the odds, hand-reading ability...

I don't need to 'suspect' anything, I will go and post this very question at a poker forum. BRB.

Okay, it'll take a while to get responses so I'll just keep yammering on here and get back to that later. Irrespective of the answers I receive I think it's apparent that the Holy Grail which we seek is an explanation of why some poker players make better decisions than others. And equally clearly a large part of the answer is "they know more about the game than the poor saps who couldn't tell you the odds of hitting a flush draw with two to come if you gave them a bit of paper that listed the odds of hitting a flush draw with two to come."

So is that it?

I don't think so.

In fact I'm becoming increasingly convinced that what separates great poker players from good ones and good ones from donkeys isn't the depth of knowledge of the game at all. It's the ability to consistently make the decision that the player knows to be correct. This idea may sound silly, but so does setting fire to a leaf and inhaling the fumes. As a cigarette smoker of 30 years I guess I am well-placed to entertain the plausibility of silly ideas.

In any tournament or cash game the players will have differing levels of understanding of the fundamentals of poker, but in my experience these differences are not great. I used to play a lot of limit hold 'em around the $25/50 limits where essentially everyone knew the odds and the standard plays. The vast majority of players had decent hand-reading skills and knew situations where it was profitable to run a bluff or make a loose call to pick off a likely bluff. And yet some players were consistent winners while others financed my drinking problem.


The simple answer is the losing players were making all the classic poker mistakes. Playing too many hands, going too far with hands, chasing draws without the correct odds, and so on. And they made these plays despite 'knowing' that they were clear mistakes.

So why would anyone do such a thing? It may sound sufficiently unlikely that you are currently wondering if I am fabricating the whole thing as part of some cunning plan to make a joke about beavers. Well I'm not. Honest. In fact about thirty minutes ago I made exactly such a play myself. One of me watched in horror as another one of me clicked the "call" button. When I failed to hit the draw that I had no business chasing the one of me that was operating my eyes blinked at the screen. All of me then closed PokerStars and came here.

At this point one of you may be elbowing another of you in the ribs saying "oh, he's going to talk about tilt, we know all about that let's eat ice-cream." NOT SO FAST! Simply giving a name to a phenomenon doesn't explain anything. I want to pull this puppy apart and examine its intestines. Besides 'tilt' implies a deviation from a norm. Poker players making sub-optimal decisions even when they know better is the norm.

Let's play with some working hypotheses. Presumably when we make a poker decision that we know to be incorrect there is a reason. In the most general terms, there must be something about the incorrect decision that appeals to us. After all, the one of us who balances the check book at the end of the month is a pretty assertive character, so the one of us who is determined to make bad decisions must have a strong motivation to do so and have the ability to overcome the wishes of the check-book balancer.

Who is this bastard who keeps destroying my bankroll?

Since we've exonerated the mathematical, rational, logical me, it must be one of those characters who is frequently at a loss to explain himself. Possibly the one who will start crying at the sight of a Monet, or become unaccountably furious when examining the shape of a paper clip. We may never unambiguously identify him, but it seems that he has been spending far too much time hanging out with my unconscious. And that in itself produces something of a paradox because the unconscious knows a great deal about poker and could be a major asset if it wasn't for this business of whispering in the ear of the me that has the responsibility of clicking the "call" button.

In fact it's far more important than that. Because another thing the unconscious knows about is the unconscious of other poker players. And if we could get it to spill the beans we'd have the ultimate poker edge.

In Part II of these musings I'll suggest that the vast majority of the beans are still in the bean jar but that one or two have escaped. More accurately, one of me will suggest that.