Monday, April 23, 2007

The philosophy of poker

KG had a multi-faceted rant at the FFO this week, but his first graf was the one that stuck out at me:

[expletive] off to the [bung]holes playing poker that continually get lucky when they make stupid plays. [same expletive] you, I've taken a lot of time and effort to learn how the game is supposed to be played only to have you hit a two [gerund expletive] outer on the [violation of the Third Commandment] river and take a monster pot that should be mine.

Yup. We'll put this in the files:

  • The guy who called all my raises in limit with Q-9 offsuit and eventually nailed the straight - beating my pocket aces
  • After the flop [A-7-2, off-suit], with two pair [A-2], I raised; then called the all-in re-raise of a lady with pocket fours - and she nailed the third four on the turn
  • Pre-flop, called an all-in with a pair of tens, which is a four-to-one favorite over the pair of eights my opponent had - until the third eight shows up on the flop
  • Flopped the nut flush, and slow played, calling after the flop [5-Q-10], the turn [a nine], then raising the bet after the river [another nine] - and guess who had a full house, nines over queens?
So, what's the common thread? Well, all of the four examples above happened to me, but with one twist - in that last example, I was the guy with Q-9 and Martin (I've mentioned him before) was the guy trying to drain me dry.

In example four, I was the lucky one. But there's a reason WHY I was lucky - it's because I wasn't that good at poker at the time. An experienced player would have had warning bells going off in his head when his opponent just called the flop bet, especially with a possible flush on the board. Even after turning the two pair, I should have checked to Martin, forcing him either to bet (driving me out of the hand) or, if he still wanted me around, to check and give me a free shot at the full house (the only way I can win the hand). I didn't play it totally stupid, only mostly stupid; but it was still a rookie play. Learning better in the future led me to make much more accurate plays in the other three examples, only to get beat down each time.

Now, in almost everything else, luck follows skill. To use two familiar examples: in hockey, over time the bounces will eventually favor the better teams and players, especially on my level where there is a wide disparity between the best and worst. (In the pros, not so much - they are all so good that the bounces even out.) A guy will happen to be in the right spot, and the rebound will just happen to find him - and he will bury the chance before anyone can recover. Bad luck, yes - but borne of his experience (to know where to be, almost before he's aware of it) and practice (to be able to make the most of the chance).

Same thing in chess. The board goes crazy, pieces are flying everywhere, and the patzer thinks he's got the expert - but the expert's odd-looking move fifteen turns ago has given him a knight or a pawn or an escape square in just the right spot to turn the game his way. His experience and practice have given him a better feel for what pieces work best together, the right order for moves in a combination; the geometry of the game is second nature and he just gives himself more opportunities to work things to his advantage.

Poker, however, is an odds game, and as a result, best play means that you will always be making the high-percentage play: either you will have your money in with the best hand, or you will make a bet that you know your opponent can't match. Therefore, by definition, if you lose, it's because you were unlucky - your opponent catches the miracle card, and his unwise bets make him rich at your expense. Mentally, it's THE challenge for a poker player, the knowledge that the better you get, the unluckier you must be. It drives pros crazy, as anyone knows who's watched ESPN when Phil Hellmuth or Mike Matusow take a tough loss.

Courage, KG. As craptacular as it is, bad beats mean that you are getting better.

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