Thursday, March 6, 2008

Slump over, kinda

I think the traditional route into poker is either online -> live, or home game -> pub -> club. I just kinda launched straight into live play by heading into the Fitz one night (and coming second in my very first tournament).

As such, when I finally started playing a bit of pub poker late last year, it was quite a culture shock. Some differences:
(1) More of a social occasion, obviously. People in generally better form, banter more light hearted, nobody trying to tilt anybody else
(2) People just telling you their hands (either literally, as some sort of bravado, or indirectly, like "Ooo, my favourite hand" or "Oh, have to play this, it's my favourite hand" when they told you last week what that was)
(3) Players varying from loose aggressive to loose appalling
(4) Nobody varying their game. Trappers always checking their big hands, bluffers betting at anything that moves whether or not it shows weakness
(5) Deceptive structure in that you typically start with 160-200 big blinds, but with the blinds doubling every 20 minutes, all it means is the early levels are generally meaningless and the crapshoot arrives pretty fast.
(6) Everyone giving off tells like it's a sign language convention

I've had a bit of a love-hate relationship, or rather hate-hate. It's the only area of poker where my ROI sucked (admittedly, on a small sample). In 4 tilts at my local pub, I netted only one cash, for an ROI of -25%. On the other three occasions, I ended making the short walk home muttering to myself about fish who'll call your first raise all night with J8 and proceed to crack your Hilton sisters. Obviously there was bad luck involved, and with the reg being a steep 20%, you need a goodish edge just to break even. But clearly I wasn't adjusting my play optimally either from club to pub. So basically I decided last time "Never again".

However, I relented last night. I'd been thinking of playing in Drogheda but didn't feel up to the trip (and more importantly, Mireille didn't feel up to driving me), so the idea of a game just a five minute walk away suddenly appealed.

Twenty minutes in and a couple of cracked big pairs later that have seen my opening 8K stack wither down to 1500 and I'm in a fouler "What is the European Deepstack champion doing even gracing people with his presence at this fishfest?" mood than ever. One fucker even slow-rolled me: apparently that falls not under the category of "poor etiquette" in the pub but rather "great craic". Then I pick up 8d9d in late position, there's the customary entire table of limpers. Flop is QdQhJd. Bet, raise, I'm all in and already thanking myself for the early night when my bingo card, the 10d comes on the turn. Ooo, look at that, a straight flush. Now I'm just praying the Ace or King doesn't come on the river. It doesn't, and I quintuple through to 7500 (probably the first and last time I'll ever get to use the verb "to quintuple").

After that, my mood lightened to the point where I was able to stop scowling at everyone. Before I knew it, I was even talking to people in a manner that might almost even pass for friendly.

Anyway, by the time we get to the final table, I'm second in chips with 23K. Chip leader has 39K, and as is typical, everyone else has under 10K and is thereby short-stacked. I tighten up like a Legion of Mary trip to Rome until the short stacks clear each other out and we're in the money (4 getting paid). 3 left, I've about 20K, other two are 40-50K. Blinds are 1K/2K, so it's time for some ninja poker. I've good reads on the two opponents. The guy with immediate position on me is the better player in my opinion, hard to read physically, but his betting patterns give him away. He folds to any bet no matter how small on the flop if he has nothing. He bets anything that's checked to him: if he has something, he bets pot, if not, more. I'll leave it to yourself to figure out the best way to play against that.

The other guy was much more timid, and also easier to read physically. Didn't tend to fold at all preflop, but folded to one bet post flop if he missed. If he hit, he bet into you, but if you called, he'd fold anything but a monster to a turn bet. So basically I just floated every flop against him.

All of which meant I worked up to 90K in chips without ever having to show a hand. It became abundantly clear that my edge late on dwarfs my edge early on in these kinds of situations. Ignorant aggression carried the day and I ended up winning handily enough.

When you play almost exclusively in a club, you can start thinking there's one correct way to play. You forget that it always depends on what everyone else is doing. Bizarre that I figured that out quicker for something like the European Deepstack than I did for my local pub event.

I've been thinking a lot about this recently, especially whenever I see people discussing the "correct" way to play a hand. If everyone played the "correct" way, someone playing incorrectly would have an advantage (so long as there was some method in their madness).

Bridge is a game which supposedly takes years of lessons to master. I learned it one afternoon, and that evening in the prestigious Civil Service club with several top class international players in attendance, I won my first ever bridge competition. The background is that in my first programming job, myself and a Malaysian colleague used to while away the down time playing chess. I'd retired from the game a few years earlier, so I was rusty, so he won the first two or three. Then I got a lucky win, and after that he couldn't beat me. Jacob was an even better bridge player than chess player, but had trouble finding partners due to a tendency to, to put it in poker terms, tilt. Plus he didn't suffer fools gladly: if his partner made a mistake, they got to hear about it. He had this notion that any good chess player could be a great bridge player, so one afternoon he taught me the game, and that evening we won the tournament together.

How was this possible? Jacob was a truly great player, but I was the least experienced one there, and one of the shakiest technically. We did, however, have a secret weapon. Apart from the play of the cards, the most crucial thing in bridge is the bidding. This is used to convey information to your partner about your hand so that you end up playing the right trumps and trying to make a makeable number of tricks. What sounds like "1 Heart, 1 Spade, 2 hearts" actually can mean "I have good hearts, Well mine aren't great how are your spades?, Crap but my hearts are good enough that we can probably make 8 tricks even if yours aren't great".

At the time, and I presume still, just about everyone else we played against used a system called ACOL, generally agreed to be the "best" system. The only major alternative to this was a system called Precision devised by a Taiwanese electronics engineer, which dispensed with "natural bidding" (that is, bidding your strong suits) to codified bidding (using bids to ask specific questions, or to convey precise information about your hand in response to specific questions). Jacob had come up with an even wackier home-brew version of Precision, so the system we were using was unique to us. Bridge etiquette requires that you inform your opponents if you're using an unorthodox bidding system and explain what each bid means. Naturally, we abided by this, but being told what every bid means before the bidding starts, and remembering it precisely once the bidding gets going, are two very different things. People schooled through 7 years of classes to believe that ACOL was the only legitimate bidding system found this particularly hard to take. Plus they'd been schooled in interference and defence tactics against ACOL, but the same tactics didn't work against Jacob Precision. So we knew how to fuck up their bidding conversations, but they were looking at us like we were talking a different language, which we were. Theoretically, our bidding system might have been inferior, but competitively, in the real world, it gave us a massive exploitable edge.



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