Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Willy Elliot....the musical

Whenever you are lucky enough to make a major final table in poker, you hope for different things. You obviously hope you will win, but anyone who knows anything about poker knows this is largely beyond your control. No matter how well you play, whether you do win or not depends much more on how you run. You can play perfectly and be the first to bust, you can play awfully and luckbox the win. So rather than pray to the poker Gods, we focus on what we can control. We hope to play perfectly, or at least well. Or at the very least, not fuck up. So you can look back on the experience and think that even if you didn't win, at least you gave yourself the best chance to do so.

This is even truer when one of your friends final tables. You want to be able to say "Well played, you gave it your best shot" and mean it. You don't want to have to console them about a blowup. This is even truer again when that friend is not a full time pro but an enthusiast. There are few things sadder in poker than when the poker Gods give an enthusiast a possibly once in a lifetime opportunity to win a big one, and they proceed to freeze or burn in the face of the unaccustomed spotlight and pressure.

Willie Elliot is a poker enthusiast's enthusiast. Philosopher's debate about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a sound if there is nobody there to witness it. Those of us lucky enough to be on Willie's watch list have no such doubts: if you make a final table and Willie isn't there to rail, it feels like it didn't really happen. We know him as King Railer. There is no online tournament too big or too small that Willie won't pop up to rail if you make the final table.

In Nottingham recently at the biggest ever UKIPT, King Railer unexpectedly thrust himself centre stage as he hit the final table with a commanding chiplead. It is a testament to how popular Willie is with the pros he interacts with that over half the guys in the current UKIPT leaderboard top 10 were railing him in person or virtually. As a pro, you feel a certain responsibility to try and offer some nuggets of advice when a friend who doesn't play full time finds himself in this position. It's a thin line between being supportive and helpful, and being a backseat driver, but it's one that has to be navigated. As Willie closed in on the final table, his friend Fraser McIntire was on hand to help keep him calm and his head clear. After close of play on the penultimate table, a group of us had some food and a chat with Willie.

Rewinding a little, Willie's success aside, I had little to cheer about in Nottingham. I had two unsuccessful attempts at making a day two. Both bullets were remarkably similar and remarkably unremarkable: no big pots or bad beats, just a gradual withering. In both cases, I played fine except for one mistake. Neither was a big mistake and probably made little difference, but at the top of my game I wouldn't have made them. On bullet one, I called a cold 4 bet from a fairly straightforward recreational player after I had three bet AK. I called because I'm near the top of my 3 betting range there so I'm not "supposed" to fold. If I had thought about it a bit more, I would just have folded and told noone. A few years ago I had a chat with another pro who convinced me that when a random live player cold four bets, you fold AK even though it's a good hand, because you simply can't expect to play the hand profitably. Two thirds of the time you miss the flop and it's prudent to just give up (which is what happened in this case). The rest of the time you could actually be in bigger trouble. (The "telling noone" part is important because if the table discovers you are going to fold that high up your range, you can expect a lot of cold 4 bets in your future).

Mistake number 2 in bullet number two was calling a river bet with top pair because my opponent either had the nuts or nothing. It was a spot where it would be a mistake to fold usually as opponents should be bluffing often enough for the call to be long term profitable, but in this specific case, the opponent was an elderly Greek gentleman who was one of the most honest players I ever sat with. I'm sure there is a Greek word for "bluff". I'm not so sure this gentleman even knows the word. Calling when you are only beating a bluff against someone who never bluffs is not a winning play, as I pointed out to Lappin walking back from dinner after he said "well, you beat all his bluffs and thin value bets". I went on to point out that a major difference between online and live is that whereas online you strive to make the optimal long term play against the full range of opponents, live you can pick up very specific read and should trust your instincts and just go with them. Another difference is that when you make a mistake online, you just have to get over it as you deal with the other dozen or so tables you are playing, but live is so much slower and just the one table so you invariably end up stewing in self loathing for a while after a mistake.

After the second bullet had been fired, I had one shot at the Nottingham cup, and then spent the next 2 days stewing in something even more unpleasant than self loathing. My entire Nottingham cup was spent in the most innermost clammiest corner of DTD (which feels a bit like a giant petrie dish at the best of times) as something incubated inside me. After two breaks spent being violently ill in the bathroom, I came back for one hand near the end of play. When my AJ was outdrawn by KJ, it felt more like a mercy beat than a bad one. I quickly headed for the exit and the 3 mile walk back to the hotel at 3 AM (I didn't trust myself not to be unpleasantly ill in the back of a cab so decided to walk).

I have almost no recollection of the next 48 hours as I struggled with what seemed like the worst case of food poisoning ever (and I had some bad ones before as a finicky runner with a delicate digestive system). Sufficeth to say that every scrap of food in my system decided to leave through the nearest available exit (on my return to Dublin, my doctor identified the problem as full blown salmonella). I was apparently visited by an angel at one point who brought me water, Dioralyte and ginger biscuits (I'm guessing this was Lappin's better half Saron who arrived in Nottingham around then), and I must have got a message asking me to do some livestream commentary because when I did finally leave the room, it was to head back to DTD to do some commentary with Nick Wealthall and Marc Convey. Still struggling unmanfully with what my doctor later diagnosed as full blown salmonella and not having eaten in almost 3 days, there was definitely the potential for catastrophe. Thankfully, the only thing I spewed in commentary was some strategy tips on satellites which sent waves of apoplexy through some of my pro friends who accused me of revealing too many trade secrets (Lappin tweeted that I had cost us all about 10 grand in equity) and managed to sound somewhat well reasoned. Nick and Marc were great to do commentary with. I've been fortunate enough to share the mic at different events with the Voice of Poker Jesse May and my own personal hero Neil Channing as well as a bunch of other great people like Emmet Kennedy and Rebecca Mcadam. If Jesse is the iconic Voice of Poker, Nick is the current laconic English version thereof, mixing insights with the clever dry wit the English do best. Marc is a revelation for those of us who would see him as essentially a blogger and therefore might expect his skills to just extend to describing and reporting hands, but in fact he has a very good awareness of the game and good technical insights. My stint starts around the 6 hours 5 minute mark:

 The following day was final table day, and the plan was to get there before kickoff to help get Willie set and in the right frame of mind, and rail the whole thing. We ended up getting sidetracked after we went to meet Lappin's Birmingham based aunt Jean and her hilarious Scottish husband Robert. Robert kept us entertained with tales of how he made a young Lappin's life simultaneously more interesting and miserable when he came to visit: good to hear the young pup didn't have it all his own way as a kid. Unfortunately this meant we ran a bit late, and we got to DTD about 90 minutes after kickoff. Dave "The Legend" Curtis and Kirstie Thompson were having a smoke outside and reported to us happily that they were down to 4 already and the early going was all made by Willie. It was therefore quite surreal to walk in the door in the last few moments of Willie's exit hand. All I was aware of was they were on the river, Willie had just announced all in and was snap called by Duncan, and was standing up to leave.

It's very hard to know how to react in such circumstances. What you hoped and expected to be a long rail to victory turns out to be the end of one hand. Questions race through your mind. Did he blow up under the strain? Did he go mental? If so, have you failed as a friend by not being there to help keep him calm and focussed? Willie is a very emotional person (it's a big part of what makes him so likeable) so these seemed like reasonable questions (poker like revenge is a dish best served cold). We did our best in the circumstances, buying him a drink and consoling him that it's about the whole tournament, not one hand, no matter how much of a misstep that hand might be.

I was back up for livestream commentary. Because it was on a time delay to preserve the integrity of the game, I walked into the commentary booth literally as the exit was playing out, and the first question I was faced with from a rather incredulous Nick was basically, how can you explain that? You can hear my response at about the 2 hour 30 minute mark:

Having watched the full final table since, I am happy to report Willie actually played brilliantly up to his exit (apart from one misstep Chris Moneymaker pointed out on commentary). He attacked the final table with a carefully thought out plan (outlined by the man himself here) that paid dividends early. It's become somewhat fashionable in some parts to scoff at ICM and to suggest that the C stands for cowardly, but a thorough understanding of ICM serves not only a defensive purpose (to stop punting off equity in spots where it isn't prudent to gamble) but also an offensive one when it can guide at points where it is prudent to up the aggression and apply the screw.

Because of the exit, much of the subsequent comment by people on Twitter and elsewhere was unkind (Willy Donka was trending at one point), but to his critics, I would ask you to consider the fact that despite the fact Willie got dealt a very poor distribution of starting hands and hit almost no flops, he still propelled himself into a commanding chip lead with almost half the chips in play early on, and up until the moment he announced all in versus Duncan, he was still in with a great shout of overall victory. I'm not sure there was any other strategy he could have adopted on the day that would have got him farther (or even as far) given how little help he got from the deck. After UKIPT Dublin, Max Silver correctly pointed out that final tables essentially play out like a one table sit n go. As anyone who like me grinded those for years will know, over a sample size of tens of thousands variance and luck will even out to give a fair reflection of skill edges and translate them into long term ROIs. Over a sample size of one however, variance is king. The person who wins is generally the person who runs best on the day. Not to take anything away from the winner Duncan McLellan (to final table two UKIPTS in a season is a pretty huge achievement in itself, let alone to win both) but he did win every single allin flip and 40/60 that I saw. Again, I'm not picking on him as the same is true of almost everyone who ever won a tournament (Kevin Williams comment to me after I chopped Super Tuesday last year was "you seemed to win every flip"). I think it's fair to say there is a certain snobbishness among full time players towards players like Duncan with a very gambling almost reckless style, but I should point out that it is a style that on its day can be brutally effective, as Duncan has now demonstrated not once but twice. Daragh Davey commented to Danny Maxwell in the airport that it's a style which means Duncan has a better chance of actually winning any given tournament than any of us who take a more risk averse approach. Whether this translates into long term consistent success remains to be seen, but for now by looking to take every flip and get the chips in with any sniff of equity, Duncan is absolutely maximising his chances of victory. Personally, it's refreshing to me to see someone nearer my own age than the typical young online baller displaying such ruthless fearlessness at the table, countering the ageist stereotypes that surround poker.

Like most sports, success in poker depends less on how good you are than how good you are under the most extreme pressure. Willie may not have won the day but he certainly won our hearts as Lappin tweeted:

"Writing musical 'Willy Elliott' about a good-natured charmer who falls just short of UKIPT title but is still a legend in my book #ukiptlive"

Long term success depends even more so on how you react to the twin impostors, triumph and adversity. Willie's response in the days after was top notch as he took genuine pride in his score and overall performance, held his hands up and took responsibility for the couple of errors, wrote it all down (in the blog linked to earlier) and moved on mentally to the next one. On to the next one, as they say. Those are the attributes of a winner, and when you couple it with Willie's insatiable appetite for the game and willingness to pester people for views on hands and strategy and digest it all, I'm pretty sure we haven't heard the last of Willie Elliot (photoshop courtesy of Willie himself).



I've read most of this excellent blog and listened to the again excellent commentary.

In the second bout of commentary when you arrived just after your friend exited at about 2.47.00 there's a hand where Millito raised pre-flop OOP with 67s (CC) and Pearson called with KJs (DD). The flop came 3c 6h Kh - Millito leads out with his pair of 6's Pearson raises with his Top Pair and Millito folds.

During the discussion of what happens during the hand where a co-commentaor asked should Pearson be afraid of the flush draw you reckon the chances of Miliito having 2 hearts preflop at around 16% and you mention that it's 3 handed.

Is that calculation based on chances of getting dealt suited cards pre-flop 3 derived from full table percentages? i.e. how do you claculate/think of that %? Hope this makes sense. gl.

Hi, good question! I think I said it's about 16 to 1 rather than 16% (if not it's what I should have said). And yes, that's based on preflop probability. Chance of each card being a heart is about one in four (second one slightly less) so chance of being dealt two hearts any given hand are about 16 to 1. Postflop the probabilities are probably slightly higher as people will tend to play suited hands more often than non suited ones, so suited hands will usually make up slightly more, but only slightly. The fact that there are 2 hearts on the flop also reduces the likelihood somewhat of Milioto holding two hearts (two of the five cards Pearson knows are hearts, so of the 47 he doesn't know only 11 are hearts, slightly less than quarter). This is gorilla maths on the fly but point I was trying to make is Milioto will have the flush draw so seldom (certainly less than 10% of the time even if he's a suited cards addict) that it's not a major consideration in the hand. Pearson should be more interested in trying to extract further value from one pair hands he beats at this point or inducing bluffs from air than in "protecting" his hand versus an (unlikely) flush draw.


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