Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Fun in the sun

It’s the last day of Unibet Open Malta. About half the team has some sort of mild bug, and I’m in the sick half, so my plan to play the last side event got altered to one of “go back to bed and stay there all day”. Then I remembered the book signing I’d agreed to do, so I hauled my sick sweaty ass out of bed and headed down to see what the story was. The last time I did one of these pretty much nobody showed up so I mentally set the line of signatures I’d be required to do at two.

I should have known that anything organized by the Polish powerhouse of positive energy Kasia Scanlon is never going to fizzle, but I was pleasantly surprised to see an actual queue. Bearing in mind I was ill it’s possible my memory of the event isn’t true in every literal detail, but I believe it’s true in spirit, and my recollection of the signing in summary form is:

“So what’s your name?”
“How do you spell that?”
“Where are you from?”
“Thanks Mika. And what’s your name?”
“Two i’s”
“Next. What’s your name?”
“How do you spell that?”
“Two k’s and an o”
“Next. What’s your name?”
“How do you spell that?”
“Two i’s two k’s and an o”

You get the idea. About half the queue seemed to be Finnish for some reason (which one of the Finns told me was Finnish poker legend Aki Pyysing, who has been singing the praises of the book in Finnish), and it seems that while Finns at first appearance seem to only have about four male names to choose from, no two people spell their name the same, something I can relate to as Irishman who hangs around with a Daragh, a Darragh, a Daire, and a Darach.

The trip got off to a slightly inauspicious start on a personal front when I was shown up for a total lack of sea legs. I’d only ever been on a boat three times in my life before, the last of those about 35 years ago. Having spent most of my first two boat trips leaning over the side making the Irish Sea greener, the strategy I devised was to take a sleeping pill and have my friend wake me as we docked. He proved ill suited even to this simple task, getting excited as soon as he saw the lights of Dublin, and deciding that was close enough to wake me. We were still over an hour away, almost all of which I spent slumped over the side spewing and swearing at him.

35 years is a long time though. Long enough, you might think, to grow out of sea sickness, as I have grown out of car sickness, asthma, acne and Catholicism. But no. After an initial euphoric period where we cruised gently around the bay and I thought this is actually quite pleasant, our captain put the boot down, the catamaran started heaving from side to side, and before long I was down in the toilet performing an emergency evacuation of my stomach. Not so much fun in the sun as sick on the sea.

When I was a highly paid globe trotting IT consultant, my decision making process for which projects to take didn’t stretch very far past “How much does it pay?” When I look back now at the experiences of that phase of my life both good and bad I can never even remember which ones paid particularly well. Instead my memories centre around how successful the project was (I have much happier memories of the ones that kickstarted the internet and produced the Oyster card compared to the one where we spent a year solving tricky problems only for our French paymasters to decide the whole thing was a bad idea in the first place and escort us all from the building with the added dramatic flair only gun toting security guards can bring to a mass firing), how much fun (or otherwise) the people I worked with were, how nice the place was to live in, and how much my family enjoyed it. I kind of feel the same will be the case when I look back on my poker career and in particular the live trips. It’s a real testament to what a good job the Unibet live events team does and the spirit among the players who support the tour that my abiding memories of a trip where I got sick on the first and last days, and didn’t cash a single event, are so good.

Fun in this case is very hard work, and the hard yards are put in by the crack all female squad of Nataly, Kasia, Sophie and Mai. Kasia has a special place in my heart as someone who gets the job done with the minimum amount of fuss and hassle, while also dispensing apparently endless supplies of support and concern trying to make sure everyone is feeling ok and looked after.

The welcome drinks on the roof featured some very entertaining Blingo and great company. I also enjoyed a couple of stints in the commentary box (the first of which meant skipping the party to let the hardworking duo of David “the voice of Unibet Poker” Vanderheyden and Henry “tall geezer” Kilbane go) with my Chip Race cohost David Lappin, catching up with (or rather being caught by) the divine Ms Kat Arnsby, hanging with Iany and Monika, and meeting some new esports people I hadn’t met before. It was also great to catch up with Saron and Hunter, who is already at least as loud and a better dancer than his Dad. I also enjoyed travelling too and from the airport with Nick and Brian (who taught me Meldx in the airport), and hanging with everyone’s favourite bookie Mike Hill and the thinking man’s Del Boy Barny Boatman, who surprised me by nominating Mrs Doke’s favourite movie (Robocop) as one of his most culturally most significant of recent decades.

It seems like every time there’s a Unibet Open Lappin suffers a delusional outbreak of “I could do that for a living”. Last time round it was professional dancing, after I surreptitiously caught him hip thrusting at a mortified Kat Arnsby at the party. This time round, it was male modelling. After this uncharacteristically flattering photo of him from the boat ride taken by Tambet Kask (who was clearly revelling in the freedom of being able to take photos with natural light) surfaced, he made sure it didn’t slip under anyone’s radar, thrusting it in all our faces as he had done his belly in Kat’s last year. I even heard him ask former Miss Hungary Kristina Polgar if she thought he should start entering some pageants now.

“You look good in that photo” she replied with an impressive stony face which I’m guessing helped greatly on the way to her cashing the main event.

Congrats to Daragh Davey who final tabled three side events and won one in a T-shirt that shouted “I’m here, I’m loud and I’m very much out”, Lany who was both first ambassador out of the main and last one standing, and Ann-Roos Callens who successfully defended her Queen Rules Ladies title.

I’ll leave the final word to another lady, Melania Mylioti, who not only overcame the handicap of being paired with Lappin (who was trying to bust before late reg closed in the super stack) to win the tag team event, but also delivered burn of the week in the staff tournament on the last night.

When asked by Davitsche why she was smiling, with perfect timing and poise, she delivered the Davitschastating line

“How could I not smile when I look at your face?”
Particularly appropriate for the occasion too, since it’s pretty much impossible not to have fun at a Unibet Open no matter how much you brick or are sick, as I hope you’ll find out if you join us in Paris.

(Photographs courtesy of Tambet Kask and Lenka)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The best job in the world

These days, I generally don’t complain about specific bad beats or periods of running bad: those are pointless activities best left to newbs. If I ever do find myself relapsing, I have any number of friends who will tell me to cop myself on. One common refrain is that a lot of them tell me I have the best job in the world, as I get to play cards for a living.

I haven’t been going to the WSOP for long enough to know anything other than the Rio as the venue. Popular wisdom is the owners plonked it there in the crown turd of their Vegas properties because it most needed the business. You won’t find very many people with too many good words to say for the place, including me.

For years, the Gold Coast, a cheaper and considerably more cheerful alternative located just across the road from the Rio, was a bit of a secret among the Irish. In recent years the secret that there’s a better place across the road, or at least better food options, has gotten out to other nationalities.

In the first few summers I trekked over to Vegas for the WSOP, the absolute highlight was the ice cream parlour located not far from the front entrance. The ice cream was unexpectedly good. I can’t say for certain it was the best in Vegas: I don’t have a large enough sample size to make that claim with any degree of credibility. What I can assure you is that I had never in my life tasted better ice cream up to that point.

I have no doubt that by any objective standard the ice cream was exceptional, but there may have been external factors at work that made it seem even better. It became a personal tradition that eventually extended to most of my friends that after every bracelet event bustout, the desolate walk of shame through the soulless Rio was followed by a walk across to the more cheerful Gold Coast for ice cream. Ice cream in that context is always going to taste a little better, serving as consolation.

The second bigger reason had everything to do with the server: a big happy kid called Eduardo. His English wasn’t great, but it didn’t need to be for you to understand that nothing gave Eduardo greater pleasure in the world than serving you ice cream. His face lit up as he scooped, his smile reaching a crescendo as he looked at the finished ice cream, made eye contact, and handed it over. It seemed he knew no greater pleasure than handing over something he knew would bring the recipient great pleasure.

A few years ago I walked across from the Rio to the Gold Coast only to discover to my horror that the ice cream place was no more. The venue of dozens of bust-out ice creams had been downgraded to another damn Subway. Eduardo was nowhere to be seen either: I like to think that he refused to settle for being someone who dispensed soulless sandwiches of mass production, and had gone in search of another ice cream parlour.

Even now every time I walk into the Gold Coast to the sights and smells of the Subway I feel a tinge of nostalgia and a smidgen of irk, a little more than the irk the line “But you have the best job in the world!” engenders in me when delivered by a non poker playing friend. I know for a fact that while I have a great job, one I wouldn’t swap for anything, I’m not the guy with the best job in the world, because I’ve met that guy, and his name was Eduardo.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The company you keep

“You're the average of the five people spend the most time with” is a quote attributed most often to motivational speaker Jim Rohn. The idea is that the people you surround yourself with set your personal agenda to a large degree: what you think about, believe, learn and do. Whether you buy into this rather glib philosophy or not, most of us would concede that the people we choose to surround ourselves with are a large factor in our own fortunes.

In poker, the relevance of this is often interpreted to be that our closest poker friends have the most influence on our games. Birds of a feather flock together, or in poker terms fish tend to school together while sharks hunt in packs. How often do you see a close knit group of poker friends all kick on when one member of the group starts to be successful?

There is, however, another context in which the company you choose to keep is crucial in poker: in particular the players you hang with on poker trips. There’s nothing particularly unique or unusual about live poker trips: they’re basically like any other high pressure work trip where you may be forced to socialize with colleagues you’d never choose to hang with if you didn’t work together. The combination of forced social interaction and a high pressure high stress work situation is a volatile cocktail: you can’t really just let loose and vent your frustrations at everyone who irritates you when you have to go back to the office and see them every day (or in poker terms, keep running into them at future events). You have to learn to smile and disengage, to be diplomatic, and to choose very carefully the people you spend the most time with. Tournament poker is particularly stressful and fraught with irritability: the nature of variance is that you and most of your friends will be getting their dreams crushed on a daily basis. In those circumstances you have to avoid the temptation to kick the dog, and rely on your friends not to see you as the dog they get to kick when it’s down.

You might ask what’s the big deal here: just hang with the people you know you get on with. But here’s the rub: there’s a huge difference between the people you can interact with on a daily basis with online and think are gas crack on a night out with once in a blue moon, and the people you can actually not get annoyed with or annoy when you’re in each other’s faces every day around poker tables, or worse yet, sharing accommodation with. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure every Vegas trip I’ve ever been on has seen at least one close friendship break down irretrievably in the desert. In this, we should perhaps look to the much smarter mind of a Frenchman, Jean Paul Sartre, when he pointed out “Hell is other people”.

This year I spent five weeks in the desert, longer than any of my friends, so my Vegas was split between different social groups and living mates. I spent the first half of the trip in the Big Brokos house, the poker equivalent of a Buddhist monastery where the monks are all from places like Wisconsin where good neighbors greet each other from the porch but don’t transgress property or personal boundaries. By contrast, the second half of the trip (with Lappin) was the equivalent of sharing a prison cell with a hilariously demented brilliant yet oddly respectful madman. It often seems to me that people look at Lappin and see the entertaining loudmouth but miss the teddy bear who is unusually sensitive and generous to the needs of those around him.

For the first ten days or so before Lappin arrived, I spent more time with Andy Hills and his wonderful girlfriend Georgi than anyone else. A few years ago at a Unibet stop in London, I spent a few days sharing a room in the Hilton with Andy. I didn’t really know him that well at the time, so there was some risk we wouldn’t hit it off, but luckily we did, at least once I plucked up the courage to tell him to keep the hand histories he told me to under the hour mark. We got on so well that we found ourselves having those heart to heart discussions men rarely have. I enjoyed Andy’s infectious enthusiasm for the game we are devoting this portion of our lives to, and his gratitude that he got to make a living from something he loved. Andy is a lot older than most people realize (I was certainly surprised) and had not only lived an interesting life before poker but as a highly intelligent and analytical mind has many fascinating reflections on his life experiences. He communicated overall contentment with his life save for one nagging regret: the lack of a significant other. I remember coming out of London hoping that somewhere somehow Andy would find someone with a very strong tolerance of interminable hand histories.

I told Andy this story when we had breakfast before he went off to play his first WSOP FT. It was my way of saying no matter what happens today, you’ve won in life. To make sure he understood I put it in poker terms. The poker analogy I used is that we all have friends who even if we don’t think are great at poker and we fear for their long term prospects in the game, we still root hard for them, and then when we hear they won a Daily Deepstack or some other small buyin event, we are genuinely thrilled for them. However, I pointed out, Andy had done considerably better in the love department, since Georgi is not only beautiful and intelligent but also sophisticated cultured and understanding with the patience of a saint. He hadn’t won the equivalent of a Daily Deepstack, he’d basically gone and binked the WSOP main event.

Andy fought a game fight on the final table but will have to wait another year for a bracelet. It was a fun rail with the kind of motley unique eccentrics you’d expect Andy to assemble for support. As he departed, I heard Georgi tell him that the thing she most wanted to do before they left for the airport was to watch the replay of the final table. Hashtag blessed.

There were other highlights on the social front. Another motley crew assembled one night around Luke Vrabel, the man who won poker Twitter this summer, in a sushi place off the strip. The company included Lappin, his friend from his Connecticut day’s Soheb, Luke’s wonderfully sweet girlfriend and Jen Shahade who very gamely came straight from busting the main to get showered like in person by Luke.

There was also another fun night when we walked Jen over from her day 1 to the Palms stalked by our wealthy but homeless looking friend Jan Suchanek (shoutout to Jan for also making a final table). Jan started the night looking homeless on the walk, and ended it shouting “Lowlifes” at us from the back seat of a car whisking him off to his luxury suite on the strip as we walked back to our box room in the Gold Coast.

Special shoutout too to Maria Konnikova, who berated me the entire speed walk from the Rio to the Gold Coast the second time we went to dinner for having the audacity to play the last hand before we went on break thereby keeping her waiting. The thing about being berated by a writer as talented as Maria is that it won’t be any old normal sub meh berating: you’re guaranteed fresh perspective and unique turns of phrase as to exactly what type of asshole you are that will live in your memory long after the sweet platitudes of others have faded and died.

I actually got seated directly beside Maria on the bubble of my first flight of the Closer, and she took incredible delight in not only knocking me out but bubbling me, as these photos prove*.

*(Ok, these photos were actually taken a few minutes before she bubbled me)

Other shoutouts to people who helped elevate my summer this year to the endlessly charismatic Jennifer Tilly (who gamely posed for photos with “the book”), friends who shall remain nameless who mercilessly trolled the vendors at the book stand asking why they weren’t selling “the book”, Aseefo who kept me company on my birthday, Jack Hardcastle whose larger than life personality is always fun to be around, Elena Stover who forgave me for walking her over to Ping Pang Pong on a rushed dinner break, Lara for an entertainingly scatty cameo appearance at the end (she literally arrived as most people were leaving), Jack Sinclair for not killing me with his reckless driving skills, the ex Unibet duo of Simon Steedman and Rauno who I was thrilled to catch up with, Brenna Warren for her always interesting stories from the table and perspectives, Breyer for his can do bonhomie, Simon Deadman for not only letting us send a box of books to his house but lugging them into the Rio for us, all the wonderful media people (KevMath, Willie Shilly, Shirley, Benjo, Robbie, Chad, Alee, Tomas and the incomparable Christian), Katie Swift who even when as ill as she was at my Millions table is always a cheery good natured loud presence, Andy Black for his consistent ability to make me laugh, Danny for tipping me off to American rec tendencies, Iany for his endless optimism and good nature, David Paredes who I found fascinating company at one of the Konnikova dinners, Ryan Laplante and his crew who we also shared sushi with, Kevin Killeen who it was great to hang out with again after all this time, and to Gerard Hall, Colin Gartshore and everyone else who bought a book and had kind words to share.

It seems appropriate though to end with a Lappin story, from the satellite in which I won my main event seat. The rest of the rail had already departed for the night when it became clear I was already locked up, and railing the slow end of a satellite when your friend is already locked up is as dull as affairs get, so Lappin did what Lappin does when he’s bored and wants to liven things up. He started a fight, or rather a verbal altercation. His chosen sparring partner on this occasion was the TD who he decided to debate on one particular rule. The TD proved less than enthralled, and deferred the matter to security. At one point I looked around to see Lappin surrounded by three uniformed security personnel.

“Please sir, you have to calm down”
“I am perfectly calm, I can assure you. And I resent your implication that I am in any way or manner emotionally destabilized: nothing could be further from the truth. I was merely engaging in an intellectual debate with a member of staff on a procedural matter”.

His position was supported, quite literally, by one of those special chairs therapists use to massage you in the poker room. It’s hard to insist that someone needs to calm down when that person is the calmest looking person in the entire room, stretched out on a massage chair.

My neighbour looked over, laughed, and asked
“Will this be on the podcast?”
“Only if he gets thrown out”

He didn’t, probably because he sounded like a litigious lawyer and confused them with big words, so the story probably won’t make the Chip Race, but has made this blog.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Veni Vidi Vegas

The first time I came to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, I was not a young man, but I was young (and naive) in poker terms. I was within a few weeks of my 43rd birthday when I travelled over with my brother in 2008 for my first WSOP, but I’d only been playing poker for a year. That first year was a successful one: I hit the ground running online and spun up a six figure roll without ever having deposited a cent, I’d come second in my first ever live tournament (a scalps game in the Fitz), and won the second major multi-day tourney I ever played (the European Deepstack). That success engendered dangerous levels of over-confidence and optimism going into my first WSOP, both of which slowly evaporated over six weeks in the desert without a single cash in a bracelet event. Looking back it’s pretty clear I wasn’t well prepared: most of my success to that point was a product more of run good than play good, and came in formats that didn’t translate to Vegas. The skill set needed to crush 9 man sit n gos (my main online game at the time) or 100 man live tournaments against the same people over and over in Ireland, both with no antes at any point, was quite different from that needed in thousands runner fields with shorter stacks, fast structures, and early antes.

After a summer of bricks that ended with my brother and me walking the full length of the strip from our hotel (Circus Circus) to the airport, it was time to reflect. My brother never really recovered from the summer of disappointment and has played only intermittently since, but the lessons I was forced to learn stood me in great stead as I transitioned from grinding a decent living in stts to doing considerably better than that in mtts.

Since then, I feel I’ve touched down in McCarran airport every year with a much more tempered sense of expectation, focusing more on giving my all and playing my best and seeing what that leads to rather than daydreaming about final tables or bracelets. I also feel I’ve left Vegas each time with a more measured response to outcomes. Once you have the experience to realize that if you specialize in holdem mtts with thousands of runners, as I do, and you will end up with a sample size of less than twenty in bracelet events, then you’re destined to have more losing trips than winning ones, so you learn to accept the losing ones better, providing you feel you gave it your best.

My record in ten WSOP campaigns going into this year was three big losing trips, three medium to small losing ones, two breakeven years, one small winning one, and one massive winning one. And that’s pretty much how it’s supposed to go: it’s the live equivalent of a Sunday online. Most Sundays you’ll lose small to medium, occasionally you’ll have a really bad one, but you’ll also get the occasional massive winning one that wipes out all the losses and more. So it is with my WSOP career overall: despite losing more years than I’ve won, I am a pretty big winner overall, thanks mainly to my one big 300k score back in 2015. The min cashes and crossbars are great for keeping the lights on and morale up that the game hasn’t passed you by, but it’s those big ones that ultimately make the difference.

This year is now in the books as another breakeven year, essentially a push. Lots of cashes (seven in bracelet events, a main event seat in a satellite, and three more in daily Deepstacks), a couple of deep runs and crossbars (39th in an online bracelet event when I ran AK into Aces with a top ten stack, 87th in a 2500, and just outside the top 100 in the 6k+ runner Little One Drop), but no final tables (except for one in the smallest daily Deepstack I played) or bracelet shots.

Part of my process this year was I recorded every single hand I played in bracelet events (or thought I should possibly have played if I folded preflop), primarily to allow me to review and analyse them in depth afterwards. One side effect of this is it allows me to look back and get a realistic perspective of how I ran this summer. Having done so, it’s pretty clear I ran significantly below expectation, in terms of card distribution, coolers and all ins. I lost most of my flips and got way less than my equity share in the all ins, even more so in the high equity spots. My point here is not to complain about running bad over a tiny sample: variance is an essential integral component of the game that has to be embraced and handled. What’s heartening to me is that I managed to grind out a very respectable consistent Vegas in the face of negative variance, and at no point felt sorry for myself as I focused purely on playing as much and as well as I could. To go deep or win a bracelet, you need just that one tournament where variance smiles on you and you win all the crucial ones. That simply didn’t happen this year, but I kept grinding myself into position for it to. This year I went in mentally prepared to embrace a higher variance style (in addition to 11 cashes, there was a stone bubble and several near bubbles as I refused to nit it up and focus on locking up min cashes). Sometimes you embrace variance and it spurns you.

As I wrote at the time, last year I felt I went into Vegas not as well prepared mentally or physically as I would have liked, and my play suffered to some degree (not much but a little), and I didn’t put in the long hours I had in previous years. I came out of that summer believing that the best approach for me personally in Vegas is just to play as much as I can, taking off as little time or days as I feel I can get away with. The main reason for this is that Vegas is just not my kind of place: I don’t enjoy gambling, or shows, or drinking, or lying by the pool, or any of the other things Vegas has to offer outside of poker. If it weren’t for poker I’d never set foot in Vegas again in my life, and be much the happier for it. When I’m not playing poker, I just get distracted and stressed by the place, and much more affected by the company I keep than I should (more on that in my next blog). For the most part I was very lucky on that front on this trip that the people I socialized with helped me destress rather than causing distress: it would be inaccurate to suggest I was essentially an antisocial hermit on this trip. I also find it much easier to get into the zone and stay there playing long days every day: I genuinely feel the last five weeks were the best I’ve played live, as I essentially replicated my online grind as well as I could live.

This year I paid particular attention to my diet and exercise in Vegas, and pacing myself. I stuck to a no alcohol policy for the first ten days, which got relaxed to a one drink a day rule for the next ten (which I broke once), and two drinks a day for the final stretch. I ate more Asian food than I do in an entire year usually, and stayed away from greasy burgers and desserts for most of the trip. I ran most days and took a lot of vigorous walks, and tried to get as much sleep as I needed. This greatly helped with my stamina to put in long days at the tables: in my five weeks there I took only one day off, most of my days I was starting by noon and still playing at 10 pm, and many of them stretched past midnight. I feel that I managed to maintain my level of play throughout this marathon, so my main takeaway from this summer is to try to do the same only even better next year.

One thing I do want to radically overhaul is the way I study, which has drifted into being too unstructured and sporadic as I struggle to juggle other commitments. I come out of this Vegas happy overall with how I played and performed, but more acutely aware of the areas I need to improve and work on. The plan is not just to work harder on that, but also smarter, and also to make some tough choices on what other areas I need to cut back or cut out to free up more of my time.

As much as I’m able to focus on process and the things I can control, I’m also a human with emotions, and it would be a lie to say I don’t feel a little disappointed with the actual results, even though they could (and usually would) be a lot worse (several friends bricked completely, friends whose games are perfect for Vegas and/or who have had great campaigns in the past). I don’t give up 5 weeks of my summer to leave the person I love to fly to a place I really don’t like just to slightly better than break even and notch up another few Hendon mobs. At my age and in this industry I have a limited number of years I can expect to be competitive, so this feels a bit like a throw and a miss. The good news is the ball gets thrown back, and I have an entire year to prepare myself for the next throw.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The year I wrote a book

A famous Irish writer, Flann O’Brien I think, once created a character who would refer to years by their most memorable quality. “The year I took a bath”. As I get older, I have a new appreciation for this. When was my youngest son born? The year we lived in Paris. When did I become a Bowie fan? The year I did my Leaving Cert. 2007 was “the year I learned poker”.

I’m pretty sure when I remember this year’s Irish Open, it’ll be as “the year I wrote a book”. Because certainly from a personal point of view the poker itself was very unmemorable. I did make one final table, but it lasted all of two hands, in the smallest event I played.

My main event came down to a very uneventful day one, at the end of which I bagged up a bit more than starting stack on my first bullet, followed by a very eventful day 2. I more than trebled my stack in the first level of day two, then failed to win another pot and bust about ninety from the money. Not even many interesting hands: I posted the most interesting one on ShareMyPair.

I brought two boxes of books to Citywest on the off chance somebody might want one, and spent much of my weekend there signing books for people. I was overwhelmed by how many people wanted a book signed: dealers, bloggers, industry people, players and random passers by. Parky bought a book then immediately lost it, as you do if you’re Parky.

A year can have more than one mnemonic. 2008 is, in addition to being the year I won my first big live tournament, also the year I quit competitive running. And this Irish Open will also be remembered as the year of the GPI award. Roland and Hans presented me with the award in the bar as I was waiting for my lift one night. In the run up to this year’s Open I couldn’t help but notice that while there was an overwhelming consensus in our favour in the great Dnegs v The Chip Race Twitter spat, most of the very few dissenting voices from said overwhelming consensus were Irish. Very few in number, but I figured there was always the chance it might be the tip of the iceberg, so I steeled myself in advance for some negative feedback. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered: of the literally hundreds who stopped me to talk about it, there wasn’t a single divergence from “Congrats on the award” and “Dnegs is an absolute tool”. People I’ve known for years and would have assumed took no interest in such things taking the trouble to do this made me unexpectedly emotional, and delighted at the pride my fellow country people were taking in the fact that from modest beginnings a poker podcast by (in the words of Kat Arnsby) “two Irish weirdos” had got to where The Chip Race is now. And not just the Irish.

In the run up to this year’s Irish Open, I took a trip down memory lane tweeting out my Irish Open blogs of years past, and at the event Laura Cornelius interviewed me about it. Trends from the past were reenforced: bricking the main, a stint in the commentary box, lots of drinking and socializing, and a draining of both my bankroll and energy as the event wound to a close. This time at least, the books in the boxes in my room gradually disappeared, and 20s appeared as if by magic in my bag to help replenish the bankroll.

At the start of the year I quit competitive running, I sat down in Drogheda to play my first big live event. I was starstruck, because to my immediate right sat Jen Mason, all English sophistication and technical perfection. I still get a little starstruck when I run into events regularly, even if she works mainly on the industry side these days, and no less so than when she asked me to sign a couple of books for her.

Throughout that European Deepstack back in the year I quit competitive running, the long suffering Mrs Doke was chauffeusing me back and forth to Dublin. While I was mostly folding upstairs, she sat down in reception reading a book. The highlight of her day was usually when someone she described as a charming dapper Englishman would come out for a break, and talk to her.

As long time readers of this blog will know, the final table of the event featured wield famous Joe Beevers, and 8 unknown Irishmen, many (myself, Gary Clarke and Marc McDonnell) recording their first cashes on Joe’s Hendon Mob site. When Joe bust, the relief was palpable that the world class player at the table was gone. My phone beeped with a text from Mireille:

“The nice Englishman just left :(“

Luckily for us, the nice Englishman is still gracing poker rooms with his elegance. I almost had a heart attack when he bought a book on the last day, and asked for a signature and a photo. As if this wasn’t already above and beyond, he also set about selling a few copies of the book to his tablemates.

One of these years I’ll get a proper run in the main event, but until then the friendship and warmth of the event is more than adequate compensation. Thank you to everyone who took the trouble to say hi or have a chat, and apologies I didn’t get to speak with most of you for longer.

This is my 498th blog, meaning my 500th is coming soon, and we all know I live a milestone. I need to have a think what I want to put in my 500th, but for now, I want to thank you everyone who followed my journey through poker yet. It’s not done yet, and I’ll try to keep it interesting.

Friday, April 26, 2019

London and me (and ewwwww)

I think I was 11 or 12 when I first came to London to visit my godfather and uncle Kieran. He and his two brothers had an electrical store in Wood Green at the time (which they later sold when they moved back to Dublin and set up a similar enterprise in Churchtown. It was my first time outside Ireland and a welcome relief and temporary release from an unhappy family home. It was also the start of an off and on love affair with London and its residents that continues to this day.

Ten years later I found myself spending a lot of time in Hampstead where my first serious girlfriend Julie Sinclair had a flat. Two years later, still reeling from her premature death, I found myself wandering miserably around Aldwych after a disastrous job interview with a software company listening to the new David Bowie single (Day in Day Out) thinking I never wanted to be in this city again that brought back too many memories of Julie.

Ten years later I returned again with the love of my life (Mrs Doke). We went to a football match (Wimbledon against Arsenal) and a Bowie concert (Outside tour rehearsal show). Since then, I’ve formed many fresher happy memories of London: watching Daiva take down a ladies event, watching Kevin Killeen go deep in an EPT, attending the opening night of the latest incarnation of the Hippodrome, finishing second in a UKIPT, and playing my first Unibet Open as a Unibet ambassador.

My new chill coach

I said to Daiva recently that the one thing I’m really bad at these days is just chilling. I generally don’t take vacations, or even days off. She is a world class chiller and offered coaching, suggesting I take an easy week in London visiting her and John.

I flew in on Monday, and the three of us headed straight to my friend Sameer’s place. Sameer is an accomplished chef who used to own a restaurant before poker, and he pulled out all the stops to impress me (and more importantly keen foodie Daiva). Afterwards I headed to my first Arsenal match in over a decade with Gareth James and Sameer. The match was a lot of fun, particularly watching Sam (who it is fair to say is more of a cricket person) get totally into the experience.

Chop chop

The following evening Daiva and I headed to the Vic to play a random £90 nightly. Win lose or draw tourneys like this are always a lot of fun and you see a lot of plays that are charitably referred to as unorthodox. As it was, it ended up even more fun when Daiva and I got headsup and snap chopped. I got lucky in the crucial hand when the button limped, Daiva completed in the small blind, and I checked Doyle Brunson (ten deuce offsuit). The flop was a rather favourable T82r and I led for one big blind. The button called and Daiva folded. The turn was another 2, and I checked since the villain had shown a very strong tendency to bluff turns. He overbet shoved for several multiples of pot drawing dead with AK. I barely covered him so with that Daiva and I were headsup. In terms of a perfect poker experience chopping with your best friend and study buddy can’t really be topped.

Trying to remember (how to sign) my name

The following morning I was up early (for me) on my way to meet the lovely Kasia Scanlon at the Unibet offices in Wimbledon for my first ever book signing. I’ve known Kasia for as long as I’ve been playing poker: when I started she was one of the beautiful Polish dealers that graced the Sporting Emporium cardroom in Dublin, and by far the friendliest. We’d not seen much of each other after she and her husband John moved to London (he’s the cardroom manager at Aspers) so I was delighted when she joined Unibet live events team last year meaning I get to see her at all the Unibet stops. After the signing we went out to lunch and she told me one of my favorite stories I’ve heard in ages.

We were chatting generally about the IPhone centric world we find ourselves in these days. Kasia has a long commute to and from Wimbledon every day, and described to me how on one such occasion she found herself traveling at off peak, so the carriage had just a handful of passengers. As she looked around, everyone was on their device avoiding all eye contact. Kasia was reflecting on this when a little old man zimmered onto the train and made his way slowly and unsurely to the seat opposite her. He looked, in the words of Kasia, like a turtle, with his shriveled hunched body and wrinkly skin, but when she smiled he smiled back. As her faith that there was still some non technologically based humanity left in the world, he very slowly and carefully took a small wrapped item from his jacket, which he carefully unwrapped. It was the kind of eye glass jewelers use to examine jewelry. After fitting it carefully to his eye, he reached inside his other pocket and pulled out an IPhone, which he spent the rest of the trip peering at.

An Indian and an Irishman in the Imperial War Museum

The following day Daiva disappeared off on an all day shopping exhibition, after a very tasty brunch with John I headed to the Imperial War Museum with Sameer. When an Irishman and an Indian visit a museum celebrating British imperialism you can expect a lot of tut tutting. It’s a bit of a tradition between us that we visit places that afford us the opportunity to express ancestral outrage. Sameer was on a mission to find a mention of the million plus Indians who fought on the British side in WW1, and horrified to find none (we also found no acknowledgement of the Irishmen used as a cannon fodder in one of the most pointless wars ever). While a little jingoistic in spots and not as impressive overall as you might expect from the rather grandiose title or impressive guns outside, it’s still worth a visit and does convey a lot of the grim reality of war.

Other highlights the trip included a trip to a comedy club with John and Daiva, and watching the first ever GPI global poker awards.

GPI and Negrean-ewwwww

My customary indifference to award shows was for once overriden by the fact of being up for one: "The Chip Race" had unexpectedly been nominated for Podcast of the Year. We were the only (some might say "token") Europeans in the category (the other four nominees were all American). If I'm honest I was surprised we made the long list, even more surprised we made the nominations shortlist, and both David and I assumed we were basically drawing dead to win the award. Whenever we were asked if we were going to the awards, we both joked that we weren't flying all the way to Vegas to see which of the four Americans won.

David was so convinced we were drawing dead, he didn't bother staying up for it (or at least that was his excuse: copious consumption of alcoholic beverages on the occasion of his son's second birthday may also have been a contributor to his heavy night's sleep). Daiva (who serves both as a strategy guru on the show and our de facto adviser on ladies poker) was keen to watch though, so watch it we did. That meant that at some time around 2 am I was staring incredulously at Ali Nejad on a laptop screen saying "Unfortunately noone from the Chip Race is here to accept the award" while one half of Daiva did a victory dance and the other side professionally filmed my reaction for Twitter.

David has a similarly jaundiced view to mine on awards, but he wrote an uncharacteristically soppy blog the next day thanking everyone who ever helped us with the show (although again, that might have been hangover sentimentality). As much as people love a long list of credits at the end of a movie (as in not at all, unless you're in them), they love a bit of controversy even more, and on this occasion our old friend Daniel Negreanu provided his. His expression of disgust at us winning the award on the night was chronicled on the PokerNews Instagram story, and drew sharp condemnation as sour grapes from far and wide. He reacted to this a few days later on his own unnominated podcast by doubling down, saying he had every right to be disgusted (though in response to his cohost Terrence Chan singing the praises of The Chip Race paradoxically said we might be good for all he knows but he didn't know never having listened to a single second) because we were, in his words, "not good dudes" because we attack him constantly. Clearly we have different definitions of constancy, as the so-called "attacks" amounted simply to us writing a blog each critical of his comparison of certain player types to cancer, and his defence of unpopular PokerStars policies, and some tweets back and forth around the time of the blog.

After his podcast drew further outrage, he doubled down again in an expletive-laden exchange with Lappin on Twitter with more than a strong whiff of racism (referring to us with the charged "You people") and misogyny (when he dragged Lappin's girlfriend into it). I pretty much sat this one out, but Lappin loves a good Twitter barney as Negreanu quickly found out when he was put back into his box and returned to tweeting about hockey, veganisms and the size of a part of his anatomy he appears unusually proud of (no pics Daniel, please, for the love of God, no pics).

I don't want to harp on about Negreanu and the tiny handful of others who cast shade on our award: people tend to show their true colours in these situations and there are bad losers in all walks of life but I prefer to focus on positive people. Most of our rivals for the award were incredibly gracious and complimentary, and many of our listeners were quick to defend us and the show even in the face of seemingly more powerful voices. I've always preferred quality to quantity and while we might have but a tiny fraction of the followers of a Negreanu, our tribe of "you people" is sharp, committed, engaged and not afraid to make their voices heard.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Brazil and books

By the book

I sat down to play live in Brazil for the first time unsure what to expect. Obviously I’ve played quite a bit with them online but live tends to be different. All I had to go on was the assessment of Jack Sinclair who got there a few days before me:
“A new type of fish, but fish nevertheless. Like the one with three eyes in the Simpsons”

During my first day’s play, I got what he meant. I saw lots of fish, but a multitude of varieties. It was hard to generalize, other than the most common type was the macho variety you also find quite a lot of in countries with a Mediterranean coast. When you find yourself sitting at a table with fish, your primary thought should not be “Mmmmm, fish” but “What type of fish?” The type that calls or folds too much? The type that thinks checking is a one player per hand thing, not allowed once the opponent has done it? The type that thinks the game is all about bluffing, or not being bluffed? At this stage you want to be leafing through the Angler’s Guide to Poker, trying to figure out the best way to play by the book against the particular species you’re faced with.

On my last table I found myself looking at something I’d not seen before: a player with a tall statue of himself as a card protector. When I passed this information on to my study buddy Daiva, once she’d recovered from the giggles, she gave me a very specific list of reads based on that one small piece of information, all of which proved correct. So the next time Daiva soul reads you at the table and you wonder why, it was probably something you wore, said, or had with you.

One of her reads that proved correct was that I should expect statue man to play a lot of hands, and not like folding much. I might have guessed this anyway from the big messy stack he had amassed before I got there, but it was quickly confirmed by his 100% attendance record in pots and his 0% fold to threebets. A Winamax pro was unsurprisingly peppering him with threebets, when a funny hand happened.

After the standard statue man open, Winamax threebet, statue man call opening, they saw a flop of AJ4. Lots of glaring and staring from statue man before he checked, then an unconvincing looking check raise after Winamax cbet. Winamax ignored the speech and the glaring while he tanked before calling. A nine rolled off on the turn and statue man ostentatiously reached for chips like he was about to bet the farm before dramatically checking. Winamax seemed to recognize this for what it always is: a Maginot line designed to look strong but actually very weak. So he fired out a chunky shell of a bet, which was met with a stubborn looking call.

A queen hit the river and statue man reprised his performance of “I could bet the farm here but I’ll check just for lolz”. Winamax thought for a while before shoving, to the obvious dismay of statue man. A few minutes into a marathon tank he complained about having no kicker. A few minutes later he accused his opponent of having flopped a set of jacks. It took him a few more minutes to talk himself into folding his ace rag, showing us all the ace so as not to leave any doubt. At this point, Winamax examined both of his cards carefully, before turning over one of them, a ten.

Now anyone who has read my most recent free strategy newsletter (which you can sign up to here) or my latest Bluff column where I explain what it almost invariably means when someone shows one will already know what Winamax has here (for those of you who haven’t, it’s clearly the nuts: king ten). Statue man clearly isn’t a subscriber though, because he bought it hook line and sinker that he’d been bluffed, and proceeded to tilt off most of his remaining stack in the next orbit or so.

This was great news for me given I found myself down to nine big blinds at this point and in need of charity. Statue man provided it twice, and went for the trifecta when he just jammed 60 big blinds from the small blind over my under the gun min raise. Tens is not a hand I’d normally be thrilled about getting that much in with at this point in a 10k, but I called faster than a speeding Amoeboid, and found myself looking at sixes. A few seconds later I saw my opponent turn a gutshot, which he filled on the river to celebrations that would have done justice to Brazil winning the World Cup.

I have nothing against recreationals having fun at the table celebrating their wins, so I left him to it. That’s poker as that awful saying goes: the pre-tilted fish can get lucky, and without that vital element of poker, the action would dry up pretty fast as soon as we all figured out our place in the food chain. But you’d much rather see that theory play out in practice in a 100 dollar event rather than a 10k one. Especially one you’ve flown all the way to Brazil to play.

Buy the book

If you live under a rock you may not heard of this new book I’ve written (with Barry Carter) called “Poker Satellite Strategy”. It’s about poker satellite strategy (we are not blessed with imagination when it comes to titles).

It seemed like most people I met in Brazil don’t live under rocks, as they were quite keen to talk about the book, as was I. Enough people keep asking the same questions that I figured I really should have somewhere I put the information. This part of the blog is intended to be that somewhere: I’ll update it as appropriate so people can refer back to it.

Ok, so what is the whole idea behind the book? I talked about this in the following places:

Some related content I’ve made:

  • Video with Gareth James looking at an Ian Simpson hand from 25k satellite bubble
  • Hand history review with Alan Widmann (not yet released)

Some free extracts from the book:

The first time I ever saw Barry Carter was on Sky TV talking about his book with Jared Tendler. I thought he was a very good interview. He still is, as you can see from:

You can buy the books in the following places:
One guy who bought the book as airplane reading was legendary online grinder Marty "TheLipoFund" Mathis. I have to admit I thought Marty might be taking the piss when he tweeted this (he is after all currently leading the PPL leaderboard and as such is the biggest winning satellite player of the last year), but not only did he read the book but he also left the first glowing review on for the book.

I spoke to Marty briefly a couple of times in Rio: briefly because not only was he deeper in the main event each time, but he was usually multitabling a few PPL satellites at the same time. As most of you probably already know, he went on to ship the main event.

It was clear as Marty went deeper that almost every online grinder in the place including myself was rooting for him. One of the eternal debates in poker is who, if anyone, a pro should root for. The cool answer is "the recreational because it's good for the game" but human nature being what is (we relate to people we identify with ourselves), the more honest answer for most of us "the pro who has put in the work and effort honing his craft". Thus it was that as Marty told us in an interview in the next episode of the Chip Race, despite getting headsup with a Brazilian, he had the biggest rail.

Buy more books

The whole experience of writing my first book has been so rewarding I doubt it will be my last. I’m just not sure what the next one should be about. Let me know if you have any ideas or suggestions.

I recently got asked what the ten most important books in my own development were. Here’s my list (in the order I read them):

  1. Super System 2 (Doyle Brunson)
  2. Harrington on Holdem (Dan Harrington)
  3. Sit n Go Strategy (Colin Moshman)
  4. The Mathematics of Poker (Chen, Ankenman)
  5. Kill Everyone (Lee Nelson , Tyson Streib, et al)
  6. Mental Game of Poker (Tendler, Carter)
  7. Raiser's Edge (Elky, Nelson, Streib, Dunst)
  8. Zachary Elwood "Reading Poker Tells", "Exploiting Poker Tells" and "Verbal  Poker Tells"
  9. Moorman's Book of Poker 
  10. No Limit Hold'em for Advanced Players (Matthew Janda)


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