Wednesday, February 24, 2021

So you want to be a sponsored pro...

I get roughly 50 unsolicited messages a day about poker from people I don’t know, or just barely know through social media. The vast majority of these fall into one of three categories starting with S.

The first category is strategy: generally hands where people want an opinion, which I’m always happy to give, sometimes after some solver work. The second category is staking: usually after some polite pleasantries, my correspondent wants to know if I still stake people, and specifically will I stake them. I’m hoping people thinking of doing this will read this blog because I can say here the answer these days is always no. 

The final category is sponsorship. Whether they admit it or not, most professional and many recreational players crave to be a sponsored player. Some because they see it as free money, and others because they see it as some sort of validation or recognition from the industry. In reality it’s neither, but that’s a topic for another day. In this blog I want to give whatever practical advice I can to players interested in being sponsored one day.

How do you get a deal?

Unibet is my third deal. I basically won the first one in a special promotion. An Irish skin of the Cake poker was sponsoring the Irish live rankings at the time, and they decided to have a special tournament for the top ranked players, with the winner getting a 6 month sponsorship deal. When we got down to three in what was winner take all, chop talks broke out. We all thought chopping the equity was best, but couldn’t agree who would officially take the deal. Now you might be thinking yeah that makes sense, everyone wants to be the sponsored pro. In reality none of us did, for two reasons which probably only make sense to that most rational and least romantic of creatures, the poker pro. While recreational players dream of glory and trophies and acclaim, the poker pro mindset reduces everything to pure Ev. Therefore we saw two problems with being the one to officially take the deal. First, it was basically a negative freeroll to pay the other two guys off before a penny was received. Back then, poker sites went out of business even more frequently than they do now. Second, it presumably involved additional effort and duties for no extra compensation. 



I ended up being the one to agree to pay the other two off. I did this partly because a deal was unlikely if I didn’t agree to be that guy, but mostly because I thought the risk and additional effort could be made up for by the possibility however slim that at the end of the 6 months I’d have persuaded the sponsors it was worth their while extending the deal.

My line was looking very sub optimal after my first meeting with the sponsors in which they made it clear they had zero intention of extending the deal and they saw it purely as a one off prize with some one time PR upside for them over just giving me the cash up front. However I’ve never been anything other than stubborn, so I did everything I could over the next 6 months to deliver value, and was rewarded by a couple of extensions until they were forced out of business by problems on the Cake network.

My next deal was acquired a little more typically: an Irish-facing skin on another network (Entraction) decided they wanted a pro with a high profile in Ireland. By now I had established myself as one of Ireland’s most profitable players both online and live, was contributing strategy to a number of poker magazines, had the most read Irish blog, was the first Irish pro on social media, all of which combined to a high national profile, so they decided I was the man for the job.



Once again, I set demonstrating value as one of my main priorities, and was rewarded by having my contract renewed a few times until the site was forced out of business when Entraction shut down. 

The wilderness years

Over the next couple of years my international profile continued to grow slowly. I was touted for a couple of different deals with major sites, but in each case lost out to an Irish rival. My age was generally seen as a major strike against me. I remember being asked at the time by Stars to recommend an Irish pro:

“We need someone who wins online but plays live too. There can’t be any whiff of scandal around them. He has to be able to talk and engage with people. And he has to be under the age of 30, preferably good looking”

This seemed to be the consensus by now among the sites as to what a sponsored pro should look like. They’d moved past hiring someone on the basis of one big bink, having been burned too often hiring someone who turned out to be a surly one hit wonder with no social skills. 

I remember these years as a time when my hopes of ever being sponsored again not only receded, but also became less important to me. I’m nothing if not a realist, and if I was swimming against the tide of my age, so be it. I’d also reached a point in my career where any supplemental income would necessarily be a smaller percentage of what I earned from poker. Staking and other interests were flourishing. I also remember this as a period where rightly or wrongly I felt some sites were stringing me along to a certain degree, wanting to keep me happy and uncritical. On the most recent Chip Race, Vanessa Kade talked about how leading female players are very incentivised to avoid criticising anyone in the industry if they ever hold out hopes of being sponsored. This is undoubtedly true, but also for men, albeit to a much lesser degree and with some qualifications. It’s much easier for a man to carve out a role and a brand as a squeaky wheel. But that has to be your image from the get go. Lappin and I have often remarked that he can get away with saying almost anything about anyone because that’s just Lappin being Lappin, but people seem to get deeply upset if I say anything even mildly critical. There has never been a time when I said something positive about a site or an event that I didn’t believe because I was hoping to curry future favour, but there have certainly been times when I’ve bit my lip and adhered to the maxim that if you have nothing positive to say, say nothing. 




2015 was a pivotal year. My biggest live score moved me to a point financially where chasing sponsorship didn’t seem like a productive use of my time. I maintained a high profile by starting the Chip Race with Lappin, and I stayed active on social media, but the goal wasn’t to get another sponsor. The following year’s Barcelona EPT was another turning point. As I wrote at the time, the festival was a new low in recreational player experience, and I despaired for the future of live poker if this was the new normal. A Stars insider told me that it was: that owners Amaya were pushing a paradigm that insisted profit in all things, to the detriment of customer experience and acquisition. At the end of the festival, over late night tapas and wine with Lappin, I told him I’d decided to go into full attack mode, sacrificing any chance I might have of ever being sponsored by them. I had in any case come to the conclusion that I was being strung along with promises of a deal “next year for sure” to encourage me not to say anything overtly critical of Stars. I therefore told my cohost I’d made the decision to write a full and frank criticism of what I saw as the problems with Stars live events, and warned him to be ready for some crossfire. Lappin not only agreed with my vision, but said he was planning to pen his own critical piece, so we were burning bridges together. 

After the blogs went viral, some unexpected things happened, as well as some expected things. People we were genuinely friendly with who worked for Stars felt betrayed. Some industry figures who may or may not have been in the pay of Stars came after us on social media. Recreational players and pros alike were overwhelmingly in agreement with our view. And we attracted the attention of Unibet, who shared our view of how the recreational player experience should be, an alternative vision of the future. To our surprise, a pair of blogs that we anticipated would torch any prospects of future sponsorship ended up leading to a deal with Unibet, which was recently extended into its fifth year. 



Shifting paradigms 

When I started in poker, the way you got a deal was you won something big and got a patch and a deal as a bonus. But as I said above, sites quickly found that wasn’t a good approach (strangely this idea that deals should be bonus “rewards” for performances on the felt has lingered among a lot of players: the most common wail I hear from players is “why am I not sponsored already? I won tourney X/win more online than sponsored pro Y”). New cars lose a lot of their value the moment they’re driven out of the showroom, and new sponsored pros suffer a similar fate the moment the novelty of their signing has passed and all the “Pro X signs for site Y” articles have been published. A Full Tilt employee told me that once the sites realised this, the model switched to one off deals: sticking a patch on someone who made a big televised final table and giving them a once off payment. Over time the sites realised that wasn’t particularly cost effective either, and after Black Friday big televised tables were few and far between. 

The numbers of sponsored pros dwindled dramatically until the paradigm shifted again with the rise of content. Content creators were suddenly in demand, be they Twitchers, bloggers, vloggers, podcasters or whatever. Around this time I was asked by Stars to recommend an Irish Twitcher and I told them they should hop on Fintan Hand, a superstar in the making. When Unibet came knocking, this shift suited us: both David and I had very widely read blogs, produced other written content, and had a podcast we could revive. As in my previous deals, I was determined to demonstrate value, as was David, and we set about being what Pads very kindly described on Twitter recently as two of the hardest working ambassadors in poker. 

But enough about me....how do you get sponsored?

When you ask footballers what they’ll do after retirement, they nearly all give one of two answers: management, or punditry.  The problem is that for every 100 retired footballers, there’s less than one manager, and less than one pundit. Poker has a similar dichotomy: almost every successful (and many unsuccessful) player wants to be sponsored, whether they openly admit it or not. 

I’ve written this history of my own sponsorships to give you an idea of what I’ve done to improve my chances in this particular lottery, and also to convey that it’s far from a free lunch these days. So what else can you do to maximise your chances?

Create content

We are still in the era of content. A creator that reaches an audience through Twitch, a blog, a vlog, a podcast, social media or a Facebook group offers far more value to a sponsor than a loud spoken opinion pro or a genuine crusher. Even if it doesn’t ultimately lead to full sponsorship, sites often offer other rewards and incentives to creators on a more informal basis. 

Know your demographic

There are very few genuine superstars in poker who reach and appeal to almost everyone. But that’s ok. Someone who reaches a small but loyal niche audience is more useful from a marketing perspective for a site than someone everyone knows about but nobody cares much about. Players are generally signed to appeal to a specific demographic. Here, some players have a natural advantage. It’s better to be from Brazil than Latvia.  It’s better to be female than male. It’s an advantage to be younger. Tournament players are much more likely to be signed than cash game players. Holdem players have a wider reach than mixed game players. It’s a big advantage to speak English if you come from a non English speaking country. 

Don’t be shy

It never ceases to amaze me when players express a desire to be signed or dismay at not having been already so I ask them for their social media and they reply “Oh I don’t do that”. That’s their prerogative , but if you want to be sponsored you don’t don’t do social media. You not only do it, you do it full heartedly, and you genuinely interact with people. There’s a handful of players who are big enough to not have to talk to people they don’t know, but the rest of us don’t really have that luxury. Here we are back to the small but loyal beats large but fickle idea. Players who are seen as relatable and approachable are more valuable. There’s no easy hack for this: it really helps if you enjoy engaging with people, as I do. I get about 50 random messages from people I only know from social media a day and try to answer them all (if I don’t it means I probably missed it so feel free to ping me). I enjoy talking to people at live events. I also enjoy sitting there silently focusing on the game, but that’s a luxury that largely disappears when you’re sponsored. If you don’t think you’d enjoy that sort of attention, or don’t think you can find the time to answer a guy who wants your opinion on a hand he just played, the life of the sponsored pro may not be for you. 

Which brings me to...

Think about who you are representing

I personally would never represent a brand I found reprehensible. Not everyone feels the same and think they’d happily shill for anyone if the price was right. But this isn’t a purely ethical question. If you represent a brand that is unpopular, or does unpopular things that piss players off, they will tell you. They will associate you with the actions of your sponsor. They may berate you about them on social media or at the table. Several of my friends signed up to join brands they believed in, but lived to regret it when an unpopular change of direction brought the condemnation of their peers. Others signed up to brands they didn’t really believe in and instantly regretted it. So at the very least ask a few more questions than just “How much?” and “Where do I sign?”

Now, if you excuse me, I have about 50 messages I have to answer....

Monday, January 4, 2021

The year everything changed and nothing happened

The further I get into my poker career, the more difficult I find it to match events to the year they happened. Was 2008 my first WSOP, or was it 2009? Did I sign my first sponsorship deal in 2009, or was it 2008 or 2010? Did Lappin enter the picture in 2012, 2011, or 2013? Did we start the Chip Race in 2015 or 2016? You get the picture even if I don’t. 

When it comes to 2020, I don’t see myself having that problem. It’s a year that stands alone like no other. The year both nothing and everything happened. The problem with 2020 looking back I think will be trying to find any significant memorable events. One Irish writer used to refer to a particular year as “the year I had a bath”. I think I’ll look back on 2020 mainly as the year I stayed at home and met nobody. 

Live poker

I actually started the year on a run of form live. I followed up a cash in the Dublin Grand Prix main event with another cash and deep run in the UK Millions main event at Dusk Til Dawn, where I played the hand against Krissy Bicknell that is the subject of the latest Chip Race strategy video, and also maybe got COVID-19 (more on that later). After I added two more final tables and three cashes at the Unibet sponsored European Deepstack festival, and then another final table at the Unibet Open, I remember Lappin predicting I’d break the record for most live cashes in a single year by an Irish player that I set a few years ago. 


And then the world changed....

COVID or not COVID, that is the question...

There’s a very strong likelihood I had Covid-19 before we even knew it was a thing. I came back from Nottingham feeling poorly. I told Mrs Doke it was the strangest flu ever: no sore throat or runny nose, just a bad cough, extreme fatigue and I’d lost the senses of smell and taste. One day I went out to do a long run and ended up walking back to the house less than an hour later. A few days later Mrs Doke went down with the same symptoms and was unable to get out of bed for a week. My co-author Barry who I hung out with in Nottingham told me a similar tale from the Carter household. 

For most of the year I felt weirdly fatigued and somewhat fuzzy and uncertain in my thought processes. At different points in the year I ascribed it to age starting to creep up on me, or pandemic blues, until suddenly in early December I felt a new bounce in my step on my runs, a return to previous clarity of thought, and the ability to put in 16 hour online grinds returned. So now I think it’s likely I was struggling with the after effects of COVID-19, so called long COVID, for most of the year. 

Online

If you look at my Hendon mob for this year, you’ll see seven more cashes I didn’t mention above, all from the WSOP. That of course was after live poker moved online, starting with the Irish Open (which I also cashed), and like everyone The Hendon Mob shrugged and accepted the new reality. 

As long time readers of the blog (I like to pretend such exotic creatures might exist) may recall, I started out as an exclusively online player. As my career developed I added more and more live poker to the mix, but I’ve continued to see myself as a predominantly online player who uses live poker to break up the monotony. At least that’s the live positive view: at other times I’ve seen live as an annoying disruption distracting me from achieving my full potential as an online player. At different times I’ve definitely wondered what might be possible if I didn’t have that distraction and disruption to my routines every few weeks. So I went into lock down thinking this was the opportunity to find out. 

The short term answer was “like gang busters”. I crushed the start of lock down as I game slipped back into a routine of playing online every evening, and results were so good that I joked to my in group one night that it was a bad night because I was “only 1k up”. 

That comment came back to haunt and jinx me as I immediately seemed to enter into the biggest downswing of my online career. I came through that though to finish the year very strongly, and though there were no standout six figure scores to report, I ended having my best year online in several. 

More importantly, I feel my game reached new heights and is stronger than ever. I put  this down mainly to a much more regular study routine that has seen me putting into 30-60 minutes most of the days of this year, with some longer study sessions thrown in. I think I’ve also streamlined and focused my study much more effectively on the things likely to have the most impact. In particular in the second half of the year I drilled down on ICM. This is an area that was historically my strongest, but I probably took for granted in reasons years. It’s also the area I think that makes by far the biggest impact in the bottom line of any tournament player. I’ve always preferred solvers to humans when it comes to strategy guidance, I was often frustrated and unmotivated in the era before solvers where the done thing was to ask the five strongest players you had access to what they’d do in a spot, and then made a judgement call on which of the five different opinions you received to believe. With post flop solvers like PIO and Monker now ICM aware, that’s given me fresh motivation to run more sims and study the results. 

The other big factor in my success online this year even in the absence of any one big year changing scores was my switch over to PKOs as my main game. Having put tons of study and run thousands of sims for my second book on them, it was good to be able to put the knowledge I gained not just into the book but also into practise.

Which brings me on to....

The difficult second book

After the success of our first book, “Poker Satellite Strategy”, Barry and I knocked a few ideas around on what to tackle next. We initially started with another idea, before settling on PKOs, because of the absence of existing books and other content on them, and the fact that they’re becoming increasingly prevalent online (to the point of dominance). 

The process took a lot longer than we thought. With satellites, the challenge was condensing everything I knew inside out into something useful to general readers. PKOs on the other hand I was still very much learning myself, so the process was more about running the right sims, drawing the correct conclusions, and arranging it all into a useful framework. 

"PKO Poker Strategy" was released in late June and I'm very happy with how it was received.



We are already well into the process of writing the third book, which should appear at some point around the middle of 2021. Barry and I also have another non literary collaboration in the works, and I’m kicking around a few autobiographical ideas for a book, so watch this space. 

Coaching

2020 was also the year that everyone found themselves with more time at home to fill, and a significant number of those decided “I know what I’ll do, I’ll get some coaching from Doke”. My coaching has changed over the years from tentative efforts to improve the guys I staked as part of the Firm through focusing on guys trying to go pro or climb the stakes to what it is now, a mix of wannabe pros, a healthy dose of recreationals who want to improve but never want to go pro, and some real ballers.

I did a lot more coaching this year and finally figured out how I can add most value to recreationals who come to me. Many of the players I coach ended up having better years than me online: between them there was a SCOOP Main event chopper, two WCOOP champions, and 5 Sunday majors.

Writing

I was a bit lazy or rather uninspired this year on the blogging front, writing only nine new ones all year, two of which were a review of 2019. The sameness of my schedule once live poker stopped made it difficult to think of anything worth writing about. In previous years I’ve tended to use my downtime on planes and in hotels abroad to write.

I did write a number of strategy pieces for PokerStrategy.com, and kept up my free strategy newsletter, which you can subscribe to if you haven’t already using the link in the header to this blog. 

Podcasts

Every year David and I think we have peaked with The Chip Race, yet every year it gets bigger. We recorded 39 shows in total, with The Chip Race episodes consistently hitting over 20,000 downloads. We made the ITunes Charts in 26 different countries around the world, and in most of those we are the only poker podcast on the charts. 

At the start of lock down we launched a new YouTube show called The Lock In. The original concept was a looser longer version of the topical chat between David and myself that kicks off every Chip Race episode. After a couple of episodes we realised that we were going to need guests to keep it fresh, and the show steadily gained an audience to the point where most of the episodes now attract about 2000 viewers on YouTube and a further 6000 downloads on ITunes. 

Speaking of YouTube, the strategy clips continue to be our most popular content there. We put out 12 new strategy clips this year, and they notched up about 35k views collectively. The strategy clips as a whole continue getting views, and accounted for 70% of the 100k views the channel got in 2020. 

In addition to the Chip Race, I also appeared on a number of other podcasts, including Thinking Poker, Chasing Poker Greatness, Chasing Passion, Talking Global Poker, The Poker Mindset, Fish To Final Table, RecPoker and Cardschat (not released yet). 

Hopes for 2021

Being at home for most of the year, I’ve been able to maintain a much more consistent study routine, doing at least an hour a day and 3-4 hours once or twice a year. I genuinely believe this has resulted in greater improvements to my game than in any other year in recent history, and even though I’ve had a great year online I honestly think it could have been a lot better given some run good at the vital times. So I’m very optimistic going into 2021. I don’t have any specific ambitions other than to keep doing what I’m doing, and I’m definitely looking forward to the return of live poker at some point.

I hope to see you all at some point in 2021!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Why I bet bigly on Biden

Sports betting and me

I was seven when I placed my first sports bet, or rather had my Dad place it for me. He told me to pick three horses in the 1973 Grand National to back each way (meaning I got paid if they finished in the top 4). I don’t think my selection algorithm extended much past randomness but clearly I ran well, or my selections did. Spanish Steps came in fourth behind L’Escargot in third, but best of all Red Rum won. Over the year I’ve dabbled to varying degrees. I’ve written in the past about a specific exploit I used to fund in part my college years, and a spell in Hong Kong exploiting some holes in the pari mutuel on horse racing there. 

McGregor - Mayweather

In recent years however I’ve restricted my gamble exclusively to the poker tables. A few years ago when McGregor fought Mayweather, I knew the odds on McGregor were way too short and those on Mayweather correspondingly too long. But while most of my friends got in Mayweather for varying amounts from a little flutter to almost allin, I didn’t have a single penny riding on the fight. Afterwards I did experience a tinge of regret at having missed out, and this came back to me recently when considering whether to bet on the outcome of the American Presidential election. 

Enter Biden



All of the data seemed to suggest that it was highly unlikely Trump could win re-election. He was running 6 points behind in the polls, more than the margin by which they underestimated his support last time, and he was well behind in several key marginal states. The fact that a lot of people had voted early by mail meant a late swing similar to 2016 was unlikely. The fact that Biden was urging his supporters to vote early and Trump was telling his to wait til polling day also conferred a clear advantage to Biden. Additionally there was no Comey moment, and attempts to scandalize Biden didn’t seem to be as effective as they were against Clinton. Nate Silver’s modelling data put the likelihood of a Trump victory in the 10% region, yet on the day the betting markets were making it more like 40%. All the anecdotal data I had also seemed to point to a likely comfortable Biden win. Two of the three Americans known to me personally who had told me they voted for Trump last time told me they had already voted by mail for Biden. 

My biggest ever sports bet

All of this led me to placing my biggest ever sports bet on the day of the election across a number of different sites. I wasn’t feeling all that great about that about 12 hours later when Florida came in for Trump and he moved to a clear favourite on the betting markets. Not that I thought Biden was necessarily going to lose, but had I waited I could have got on at a much better price now. 

I would never claim anything approaching expertise these days as a sports bettor. But there were two things I have picked up from friends who are that seemed relevant in this spot:

(1) who is betting on each side is vital information. As a kid I was told by a professional gambler that one should never bet on a horse owned by the Queen, because whatever it’s prospects it always went off at far too short a price because of the weight of patriotic money on it’s back from people betting it purely because it’s owned by the Queen. Some events attract a lot of mug money where people bet with their heart, and elections are often such events. A quick gander at social media was enough to convince me that most of the mug money was being wagered on Trump, and most of what I suspected to be the smart money on Biden. One notable exception to this was Bryan Paris, who not only won bigly on Trump in 2016 but came on the Lock-In this time to explain why he thought Trump would win again. 



(2) Markets tend to overreact to early data points. An example of this is when one team scores early in a match their price often drops too much. This certainly seemed to be the case here, and indeed there seemed to be a bit of recency bias built into Trump’s price at every point in this election cycle, with a lot of “look what happened last time”. 

Cognitive biases

It has been pointed out that while closer than a lot of people (me included) expected, it wasn’t as close as many seen to think, and this would have been a lot clearer if the results had come in in a different order, with for example the marginals that Biden ended up winning all coming in at the start rather than the end.  

At the end of the day (or days), I was rather relieved to not only have won my bet, but to have resisted pressing the panic button after Florida. One thing that did occur to me afterwards though is that I may have placed too much value on the anecdotal data at my disposal. Yes, 2 of the 3 Trump voters I knew switched sides, but

(1) Three people is a rather meaningless sample size

(2) Most of us realize we create our own social network, populated for the most part with people who share our views on most things. Given this bias which I know I am also prone to, I obviously don’t regard as in any way significant that almost nobody I knew was voting for Trump. I may however have assigned too much significance to the fact that two of the three Trump supporters I knew were switching sides. My thinking here was since they were Trump supporters they were exempt from any friend selection biases I might have, but on closer reflection this doesn’t really hold up. It’s highly probable that I’d find it much easier to find enough common ground with a mild Trump supporter than a rabidly committed one to maintain a friendship, and therefore the Trump supporters I knew were far more likely to switch sides than average. 

Retirement....not just yet

Despite the favourable outcome, winning my biggest ever sports bet did not encourage me to repeat the experiment often in the future. Despite winning, it felt a lot closer than I imagined it would be. This led me to conclude that I am too prone to  all the usual biases to have a very clear edge, at least ahead of time. As I consumed the data as it came in on election night, I did feel I interpreted it very well in real time. Several times I was convinced the market had overreacted to the latest significant data, and in every case I was proven correct with an almost immediate market correction. It was also clear to me that the markets were often internally inconsistent: for example Trump’s overall price tended to be shorter than the cumulative prices of all the states he needed to win, and Biden’s overall price was conversely often longer than it should have been, so it felt like there were lots of opportunities to make plus Ev in running bets. This is something I might experiment with in future, but otherwise it’s very much a case of don’t give up the night job.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Real Time Assistance (RTA) - A confession

Real time assistance is the current hot topic in poker. I’ve debated whether to write this blog or not but in the end decided it’s time to finally come clean. In this blog I’ll explain explain what RTA is and why it’s cheating, but first let me rewind almost 50 years to my schooldays.

Back then, computers weren’t a thing. Calculators were, but as is often the case when it comes to education, the educational system lagged technology with teachers continuing to teach certain skills well past the point they were rendered obsolescent. This is why young school kids were still taught multiplication tables. They came in a small self contained book, each page a different number between 2 and 10, with a list of the ten digits multiplied by that number. 2 times 1 is 2, 2 times 2 is 4, 3 times 2 is 6....you get the idea. 

We were expected to learn these by heart at home, to be quizzed on them in class. We got the book at the start of the year, and before we were ever assigned a table as homework, I had devoured it cover to cover. Numbers fascinated me from an early age. I was not interested in learning a few dozen calculations by rote: what interested me were patterns. Doubling was so easy I had no need to learn the 2 times table as I knew it already. That meant I didn’t need to learn the 4 times table either (just double twice) or the 8 times table (three doubles). The 3 times table seemed trivial too, being just a double and an addition. The 6 times table was just that doubled. Ten was the simplest of all, just add a zero. 5 times table was just 10 times halved. The first method I used for the 9 times table was to add a zero then subtract the number, but then I noticed another pattern: when you multiply a number by 9, the digits of the result always sum to 9, and the first digit is just one less. That left just the 7 times table to be learned, but then I realised since I knew all the others, and 8 times 7 is the same as 7 times 8, the only one I actually needed to learn by heart was 7 times 7.

Every Friday, our teacher ran a contest where we all stood up, he presented us with a random multiplication, and the first to raise their hand and answer won a chocolate bar. It turned out my pattern method was faster than the memory retrieval method all my classmates were using, so for ten or eleven weeks I went home every Friday with a chocolate bar in my bag. This did nothing for my popularity, and even the teacher started getting frustrated that the same kid kept winning. He took the reasonable decision of pretending not to see my hand when it shot into the air. It took me a few weeks to realize I’d effectively been banned for being too good in the interests of class morale. Once I realized this, I came up with a new strategy. I enlisted the help of the kids around me. The plan was simple, as soon as the question was posed, their arms would shoot into the air, and I would signal the answer with the digits on my unraised hands. Teacher would pick one of the kids, and we’d split the chocolate bar later. 

At the time I saw nothing wrong with what I was doing. Looking back I realize it was cheating. I effectively provided real time assistance to other kids allowing them to win, and benefited from so doing. I also realize I’m disappointed that 8 year old Doke wasn’t sufficiently au fait with game theory to have worked out that always being the first with the answer wasn’t GTO. Had I held back some percentage of time and let another kid win, my long term expectation could have remained above the half a chocolate bar it became after I was effectively banned for winning too much.

Flashing forward to GG poker

GG are very much the new kid on the online poker block. They have a bad boy swagger to them that suggests they might not fully play by the rules, and deep down what poker player doesn’t appreciate a little rule bending (especially dumb ones like you can’t play online if you live in a repressive country)? They recently sent Pads (Patrick Leonard) into a tizzy when they responded to some criticisms he leveled at them with the tactic you often see used in the schoolyard (“No, you’re stupid!”). It also needs to be said they’re doing a lot of things very well, in particular one the poker industry has struggled with in recent years: player acquisition. Recreationals love the software, and many of the features. The staking feature is particularly genius. It’s been an unspoken (although Lappin broke ranks and spoke it on his recent appearance on The Orbit) dirty industry secret for years that while Twitch is very good at attracting people who like to watch (poker or any other game), this doesn’t really translate to new player acquisition. The vast majority of watchers stay that way, and don’t contribute anything to the online ecosystem. That’s fine for other games that monetize their audience, and it’s even fine for poker twitchers making their living from donations and subs, but doesn’t translate into bums on seats or online sites.

GG have found a way to monetize people who like to watch rather than play. They can now buy a piece of any player (who is offering shares through the client) at the click of a button, without having to even contact the player in question. The client automates the entire process: there’s no having to chase players if they cash. As ever, there are rumblings that people are charging too much markup, but this is entirely missing the point. Traditionally, players have sold to other players, and there’s been a sort of gentleman’s agreement that the markup will effectively share perceived edge between the player and the stakers. Whenever I’ve sold in the past, I’ve estimated my edge and translated it to an expected ROI, then halved it, so if I think my long term ROI in a particular tournament I’m playing is, say, 60%, then I sell at 1.3. 

Of course nobody ever knows their exact edge, and most of us are possibly guilty of over rather than underestimating, which tended to lead to one of the most tedious debates in poker between self appointed markup police (usually people with no actual interest in buying action) and sellers. In recent times we have seen much less of this as most people are happy to let the market decide. I think there’s also a growing acceptance that there’s an entertainment aspect to this, particularly with the Twitchers. Most people make minus Ev sports bets to make their viewing of sports more enjoyable. Similarly, rail birds will happily buy a % of their favourite Twitcher to make sweating them more fun. They’re not too bothered whether the long term Ev of that percent that costs $4 is $4.24 or $3.76. Conversely if the Twitcher can quickly sell out at $4 why should they sell lower?

This is great for the overall ecosystem as it brings fresh money into it and allows streamers to play higher (which is inherently more entertaining for their audience) than on their own dime. The idea is such a winner, I’m surprised other sites haven’t scrambled to copy it as fast as they copied PKOs from Winamax. 

Other GG innovations haven’t been met with universal approval. RTA (real time assistance) is the current hot topic in poker. It’s obviously not just a problem for GG, but the exposure of Fedor Kruse as using it to rise the stakes rapidly there moved it centre stage. As a former runner I have a particular reason to feel that it’s a little unfair to point fingers exclusively at GG because of Kruse and some other players there who have had their accounts suspended over allegations of RTA use. The fact that people are being caught (assuming they are guilty) is a good thing, not a bad thing. Running is one of the best if not the best sport at catching and punishing drug cheats: yet the public perception of this often translates to “they’re all juicing”. Meanwhile other sports which take a much more low-key approach to testing sail under the radar successfully presenting the image that they don’t have a big “drug problem”. We may have a similar problem in poker. The sites making the biggest efforts to catch cheats are the big regulated sites because they correctly recognize cheats as an existential threat to their business. That means they will catch more cheats than smaller unregulated sites or apps, but if the message recreationals take from this is they are safer on an app, they are very much mistaken. 

What is RTA?

The most hard line definition of RTA is it’s anything outside your own brain or memory that helps you make a poker decision in game. This would mean preflop charts like the ones in “PKO Poker Strategy” or “Poker Satellite Strategy” or apps like Snapshove. In theory, even sticking a post-it on your computer saying “Don’t call threebets with AJo” would be crossing the line. 




Most people and some sites don’t take this hard a line. Stars explicitly allow you preflop charts if it’s folded around to you. Most people would accept this is not cheating: the question is how much above and beyond that you can go. If a chart is ok, what about a spreadsheet where you type in stacks and blinds and it works out which chart you should use? Most people think we are getting very close to cheating now, and most would agree we cross the line for sure if we write a programme to scrape the screen for this information, retrieve the correct chart and tell us exactly what to do. 

Postflop is even more problematic. You might argue that it’s ok if you just happened to run a sim looking at AK4 flop to look back at the results if it arises in game, but it’s becoming easier every day to build (or even buy) libraries of solves. The real doomsday scenario is full blown RTA software that scrapes the screen for all the relevant data, and then consults a comprehensive list of charts or solves to tell you exactly what to do in every spot. And if you think that’s far fetched and futuristic I have bad news for you: the technology is not only here but has already been demonstrated on Twitch.

The solution 

So what can we do, Daddy?

The first thing to say here is the sites haven’t given up. Nor are they powerless to catch people using RTA. The easiest way to start protecting yourself from cheats is by sticking to sites that have displayed a will and ability to catch them. I regularly get small refunds from Stars and GG with a note saying they caught some cheater I played against, confiscates his funds and are redistributing to those of us who were directly affected by the cheating.

The next thing to think about is that different forms of the game are less susceptible to RTA cheats. Cash with its fixed stack sizes, predictable parameters and pure chipEv is the easiest to cheat. Spin and gos, headsup sit n goes, and any other winner takes all format are similar, given their lack of ICM. Tournaments introduce ICM and another level of strategy that RTA tools will struggle to adjust for accurately if at all. Best of all are PKOs which introduce another level of strategy in the form of bounties, which will probably never be fully solved for. 

For my own part, I’ve shifted the vast majority of my online volume to PKOs on legit fully regulated sites. PKOs actually address not just RTAs but a lot of the downsides of the online poker experience. They disincentivize stalling, they encourage looser more fun play, they create more multi-way pots which can’t be solved in PIO, and they make the action meaningful right from the start. And I’m not just saying that because I just wrote the book on them.




Friday, October 30, 2020

Seán Ua Cearnaigh (1933-2020)

 The road to nowhere

When I was a small child it seemed to me that my father came from the literal middle of nowhere. When we drove from our small house in Enniscorthy to the even smaller thatched cottage in Tipperary where he was born and raised, we’d drive on main roads and through big towns like New Ross, Waterford and Clonmel until we got near. Then we’d turn down a tiny side road which he sometimes struggled to find in its unsignposted insignificance. After what seemed like an eternity when you’re five we would take a sharp right on to a more winding tiny road, so tiny you constantly feared you’d round a corner into another car coming in the opposite direction. If you were unlucky enough to run into another car on this road, well, one of you was backing up. Thankfully that almost never happened. 





In actual fact, it’s not really the middle of nowhere. There are two nearby villages, Burncourt and Ballyporeen (later made famous by a rather tenuous Ronald Reagan connection) and on the final tiny road not far from the farm and the cottage, you pass Mitchelstown Caves. That meant that as a child growing up my Dad’s address was John Joe Kearney, Mitchelstown Caves, Co. Tipperary. He told me once that when the bullies in the school he went to learnt this they responded by giving him the nickname “fear na pluaise” (Irish for cave man). Another boy whose most distinguishing feature was his very large ears was dubbed “fear na cluaise” (ears man). It seems that the schoolyard bullies in rural 1940s Ireland were at least bilingual and vaguely poetic. 


My first resteal

If you’re wondering about the Kearney thing, I can confirm he was born a Kearney. As a committed Irish language activist he Gaelicized his name to Seán Ua Cearnaigh, although his mother and most of his family went on calling him John Joe. He reanglicised it to Sean O’Kearney, thereby reclaiming the O he felt the English had stolen from us, without bothering with the legal formalities of a name change. I grew up thinking the name on my birth certificate was Dara O’Kearney until I first applied for a passport and found there was no O’. To this day there’s a note on my passport on the discrepancy. 



Never a farmer to be

By all accounts, or at least by his, it seemed his childhood was far from perfect. He never said it directly, or even complained about anything, but I inferred from the stories he told that he struggled to relate to kids outside his immediate family, was seen as a bit odd and did not enjoy school. He had a lifelong love of learning and knowledge, but I think he struggled to see the point of a long bicycle ride to school to learn what all the other kids learned when he could just stop off at a barn up the road from the cottage and read the books of his own choosing. At that early age he had already learned one of the most important lessons of his life, that if the physical world left you unsatisfied and unfulfilled you could always withdraw to the world of the mind. Mitching as it was called in the Ireland of his day was very commonplace at the time, but my Dad might have been the only one in the whole county if not country skipping school so he could read more. He apparently got away with this for a year or so until his mother encountered the headmaster in the local village who asked her why her son didn’t come to school any more.


His relationships with his parents were apparently loving in their own way but not without difficulties. He described his father as a practical man who often despaired of the impractical son he was given. He never attempted to hide the fact that he hated farming and that could never be the life for him, even if as both the eldest child and only son he would have been expected to take it over. Most of the stories he told me about his own father involved him being charged with some practical task and failing comically, like the time he hitched the horse to the cart facing the cart, apparently believing that horses either pushed carts, or worked best in reverse gear. His mother was one of the many fiercely intelligent and independent women who take no prisoners and suffer no fools gladly that are peppered through that side of my family. As a small child I remember being struck that they greeted each other not with a kiss but a handshake. She both loved and despaired of her eccentric only son who wasn’t even any good at cards. She was the original card shark of the family and it pained her to see any game played sub optimally. My Dad loved playing cards everywhere except in her cottage, because it always ended the same way with her berating his substandard play in front of his mildly amused son. 


The three sisters


By contrast, his relationships with his three sisters seemed idyllic. He had different relationships with each of the three reflecting their very different (from each other) personalities, and with all three he had a closer bond than any other I’ve ever seen between brother and sister. With eldest Kathleen he shared a love of Irish history and culture, and he respected her fierce intelligence and directness that meant she always called it as she saw it. In Eileen he found a soul even gentler and kinder than his own, a true kindred spirit who seemed to understand and appreciate his eccentricities and qualities better than anyone else. And with youngest sister Ann, the rebel of the family, he thrilled to her sense of playfulness, humour and mischief while appreciating her insistence on living her own life on her own terms. All three relationships lasted a lifetime, and the most excited and happy I ever saw him was getting into the car to drive to visit one of them. 


Games


My Dad loved games, something he passed on to both his sons. He taught me most of the games I know, including poker, but it started with chess. A friend would come once a week to play him, and I’d sit and watch the incomprehensible battle of wits that ensued. I did understand that the games they played were intense for both men, and my Dad seemed to always lose. Over the course of the game I’d see him go from boyish optimism to puzzlement, frustration, and eventually resignation and the disappointment of defeat. His disappointment never lasted very long: he was a very good loser, something he didn’t manage to pass on to me. He enjoyed the game for the game itself, the result didn’t seem to matter much to him. This was true of almost everything he did: he read voraciously and learned for the pure joy of knowledge. He was not an ambitious man, something he was often berated for, but for him knowledge was it’s own reward. 


After a few weeks of observation, I asked him to teach me. I quickly learned the moves, we played a few games, and he got to experience the joy of victory. At least for a few weeks until I won my first game. He took it well even if it can’t have been nice to lose to your 7 year old smartass braggadocio son, who was not a gracious winner. We played a few more games during which the gulf in skill rose to obvious and embarrassing proportions. The novelty of beating my old man had been replaced by something somewhere between sympathy and mortification so I stopped badgering him to play, and started badgering him to let me join the local chess club.  He gratefully accepted the switch. 


He taught me dozens of card games, almost all of which he played enthusiastically but badly. As I got older we settled into a familiar pattern: he’d teach me a new game, we’d play until I got better than him, I’d teach my brother and we’d play until one of us emerged dominant. My brother won chess, I won checkers. He won monopoly, I won most but not all of the card games. When we ran out of games my father taught us, we started inventing our own. I remember one game in particular that grew in complexity and strategic richness over time: US President. We played as competing candidates vying for states and electoral votes. There was both strategy in where you chose to employ limited resources, and chance in the form of rolling a dice. Once we’d exhausted all the competitive games my Dad settled into patience (known as solitaire in the US), a game he would play for hours and hours on end for the rest of his life. 


As I was growing up I saw myself as very different from my Dad, but looking back I see we were far more similar than either of us perhaps imagined. We shared a lot of passions and our political outlooks aligned perfectly. He was a man who was driven by the things and people he loved and tried to waste as little time as possible on the things and people that annoyed and bothered him. I grew to see the wisdom in that. He loved games and knowledge for what they taught him not what they brought him. While I remain a more outwardly ambitious man than he ever was and take pride in trophies and other accolades, the primary attraction of things like running and poker for me remains the joy of discovery more than the joy of victory. My Dad could immerse himself in a book or a game or a piece he was writing so the rest of the world faded away, something my own kids will attest he definitely passed on to me. He had natural endurance both physically and in life. He could walk all day, and one of the stories he told me involved him going to Dublin as a teenager to see his beloved Tipperary hurling team play in Croke Park, spend the money that was intended for return train fare on drink, which meant he had to walk home. For those of you not familiar with Irish geography, that’s a long walk. 



Wisey


The biggest thing I think I learned from him is just because someone is very different from you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respect and try to get along with them. Having had a tricky relationship with his mother growing up, he found himself with an oldest son who seemed to have inherited all her most difficult traits (obstinacy, stubbornness, impatience with imperfection and a sharp tongue that didn’t hold back if it thought you were wrong). To his eternal credit he adjusted to this and never insisted “my house my rules” or that I behave the way he would have liked me to behave, or that I be like him. His nickname for me, “wisey” was a gentle jibing response to a smartass son who would never let him win a game or an argument, or let any perceived lapse of logic go unremarked on. 


I remember him as having spent much of my childhood alone in the smallest room in the house, his office, hammering on an old typewriter. He wrote poetry, stories and articles, mostly in Irish, which he submitted to various publications like Ireland’s Own. His biggest ambition was to get a book published, and the most deflated I remember seeing him was when he would open a parcel containing a returned manuscript and a rejection letter. But he was a dogged resourceful man who never dwell on disappointment or setback but simply got on with writing the next one. He taught me by example that failure is final only when you give up. I sometimes feel very old in poker and in life, but when I think of everything he achieved past my age with failing health, it’s inspirational. At the age of 65 he finally achieved his ambition, and over the final two decades of his life published approximately 20 historical fiction books with Irish book publishers such as ‘An Gúm’ and ‘Coiscéim’ and received a number of awards for his writing. His particular strength was books aimed at kids: he had a natural affinity with kids and an ability to communicate with them directly. At his funeral one of my cousins who teaches on the Aran Islands told me his books were the favourites of the kid in her school, and he came there to give them a talk once. 





Sports


My Dad was not good at any sport, but that didn’t stop him from loving them all. He grew up in a time when soccer and cricket were hated in Ireland as foreign imperialist sports, but he welcomed them into his heart. He confided in me on one of our drives to Tipperary that when he was growing up he’d never seen either game played, and that he had surreptitiously learned about soccer purely from listening to radio commentaries of matches. He laughingly admitted that he imagined the act of heading rather differently from the reality: in his mind’s eye it involved players getting down on the ground to hit the ball with their head for some reason. To this day I have no idea what he could have imagined as the reason they’d want to do that rather than just kick the ball, but my Dad was a romantic rather than a logician, and like many romantics the world he imagined was a much more entertaining place than the one he found himself in. This made him an entertaining if somewhat unreliable narrator at this times, he very much subscribed to the Spike Milligan view that you shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, and to this day I can’t be sure if all the bridges in Tipperary he proudly told me his father had blown up during the war of independence were ever actually blown up by my grandad. It wasn’t that he lied: he was actually the worst liar I’ve ever known in the sense that when he attempted subterfuge it was comically transparent, but he had a way of reimagining the world to make it more interesting. 


The eternal optimist


My Dad’s path through life was not an easy one. He was a natural optimist and romantic who always believed that no matter how bad things got, better times were ahead, just round the corner. I’m not entirely sure why he decided to become a forester, but I think it may simply have been that he loved trees. Unfortunately for him he quickly discovered that the reality of the job was very different from the romantic ideal in his head. He definitely didn’t enjoy “thinning”, the process of going through the forests in his care marking the trees that were to be felled. To watch his face as a workman started up the chainsaw, you’d think it was going to be taken to him rather than the tree. He did enjoy bringing me to forests, and walking around them with me, something he never managed to pass on to me. To this day I find them desolate somewhat sinister slightly unnerving places where bad things can be expected to happen. But my Dad was an old fashioned tree lover.  


He was diagnosed with serious health problems in his 30s and contracted diabetes in his 50s. The fact that he lived to be 87 is testament to his resilience and ability to make the best of whatever life dealt him. He was less “when life gives you a lemon make lemonade” and more “get it over with and eat that lemon without complaint, then tell everyone that was the last of the lemons and it’s nothing but oranges from here on out”. 


Mrs Doke


When I pulled off the coup of a lifetime and persuaded Mireille to uproot her life in Germany to join me in what she initially assumed was a “priest-ridden backward country”, nobody welcomed her into the family with the amount of enthusiasm my Dad had for her. They took to each other instantly. He was thrilled by her intelligence, directness, culture and sense of humour. As proud as he was of being Irish, and as much as he loved local history, he was never parochial or insular and was genuinely the least xenophobic person I’ve ever met. He was living proof that you don’t have to be racist to be nationalist, and you can both a proud Irishman and a proud European. He loved the fact that our family was now properly cosmopolitan and European. He brushed up on his basic French to talk to the in laws. He was a little disappointed they didn’t quite share his enthusiasm and knowledge for all things Napoleon Bonaparte, but he consoled himself with a genuine relish for French cooking that he instantly recognized as a different level from bacon and cabbage.


The funeral


Pandemic or not, his funeral was a very well attended affair, with his sisters, both his sons, different generations of both sides of the family, and friends he had shared his different passions with showing up to say goodbye at St Aidan’s Cathedral. His sister Ann delivered a moving tribute to the brother she had known and loved all her life, and her husband Bobby Gardiner and children provided the kind of beautiful haunting Irish music soundtrack my Dad always loved. 


In the graveyard afterwards, it was great to see cousins, aunts and uncles I hadn’t seen in decades. It was both sad and fitting that even in death my father was able to do one of the things he did best: bring very different people from all walks of life together on common ground. As we prepared to leave, one of my uncles pointed out something else that was very fitting: if you look straight across from his grave on the hill you see another more famous hill, Vinegar Hill, which was the place in Wexford that featured most prominently in his heart and in his stories. 




Brother Hanley


By the time I was in secondary school, I no longer felt at home in my parent’s home, and was counting down the days til I got to leave. It wasn’t really anybody’s fault: it was simply as time passed I grew further away from them in mind and outlook, and the differences between us outnumbered outweighed and overwhelmed any lingering similarities. My Dad seemed to accept this and make the best of it, my mother not so much. She seemed to take my rejection of almost all of her views on life and beliefs as a personal slight, and something that could be righted through extreme punishments and endless hectoring. It particularly hurt her that I was by now a confirmed atheist, and her main concern seemed to be that I keep this to myself. 


My secondary school was a Christian Brothers one. I’m sure you’ve all heard the horror stories, but in truth I have nothing but good memories. By Christian Brothers standards it was very modern in outlook. My favourite teacher was a Christian Brother from Tipperary, Brother Hanley. A philosopher and poet by nature (he was published in Irish), his life took a sharp turn in middle age when a shortage of physics teachers in the country led him to volunteer to go back to college and earn a science degree from scratch. By the time I met him he was nearing retirement, a wonderfully clear and passionate teacher who could convey the wonders of the universe in a physics class. I was therefore relieved that he was assigned to be my personal spiritual counsellor. Once a fortnight I’d go over to the Christian Brother residence for an hour with him in the dusty room assigned. He would answer any questions I had on points of doctrine factually but with none of the enthusiasm he had for quantum mechanics. He didn’t seem too interested in arguing with what I saw as logical inconsistencies in the religion I was born into, replying mostly with the phrase “it’s a matter of doctrine”. Sensing he could see through my sham pretence at faith I eventually came clean and told him I had lost all belief in a Christian God, and awaited his response. After his initial shock at the sudden blurted and I’m pretty sure incoherent nature of the confession had subsided, he smiled conspiratorially and said 

“Most of us do in the end. Let’s go for a walk”


Thereafter, our fortnightly spiritual counselling sessions took the form of walks in the garden and down by the river enjoying the marvels of nature while we talked philosophy, history and life in general. A physicist and mathematician by training and a poet and philosopher by nature, he combined them all into a wonderfully clear and concise method of expression that resonated with my similarly mathematical mind. When he told me that time as viewed through the prism of a single human life is not linear but elliptical, I understood intellectually he was saying that the further we get into our lives the closer we seem to get back to the beginning. As I get older I understand how true his statement was in a much more meaningful sense. The adult of 30 is a very different person from the child of 10, an entirely different person, and the adult of 50 will look back on the 30 year old as a different person again. But the child remains the original, and even as we go through life discarding and acquiring identities, beliefs, companions and experiences we never forget the child we were and how that child saw the world. 


Back to beginning


Even now, I read ten year old blogs written by 45 year old Doke and struggle to remember the person he was and the things he thought. My memories of 25 year old me are often so remote it’s like watching a movie about another person’s life for the most part, a movie where I’m struggling to grasp the hero’s motivations. But even now I can close my eyes and I’m back in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle on the way to the middle of nowhere. My Dad is driving, and as we pass through every town and village between Enniscorthy and the thatched cottage in the middle of nowhere he’s telling me story after story about each place, who used to live there, and what happened to them. Sometimes he’s the hero, sometimes he’s just a fringe character, and sometimes he’s just the one telling the story. But he’s happy, the happiest I will ever see him in his life, because he’s leaving the worries and stress of work and marriage behind for now, heading back to the place and people he loves the most, where he feels truly at home. And I’m happy too because he’s happy, because I love the place and people too, my Granny, aunts, uncles and cousins, with the easy uncomplicated love of people you only ever see on holiday. And I’m happy because we are talking and listening and telling each other stories and our differences no longer matter because of my Dad’s amazing ability to simply put them all to one side and focus purely on our similarities and shared passions. 


These are memories that are fresher in my mind than stuff that happened in January, these are memories that didn’t die with him but will remain alive and fresh to me for the rest of my life. Gone but not forgotten, ní fheicimid a leithéid arís.

























Friday, August 14, 2020

Learning From Solvers: KK on 987 flop

Studying with solvers

Solvers have revolutionised poker, and the way we study it. Most pros accept the necessary to study with them nowadays, but not all of them use them optimally in my view. Often they focus too much on specific hands they played, looking to answer the question “Did I play the hand properly?”  This is the wrong question in my opinion. While looking at specific hands and spots is a good way to investigate optimal strategy in a concrete way, you really should be focusing on two things:

(1) how should I play my overall range (every hand I could possibly have in this situation) rather than just the specific hand I happened to have on this occasion?

(2) what are the underlying factors and strategic concepts that can be extrapolated from this exact spot to other situations?

To illustrate this I’m going to do something I haven’t before here on the blog, a hand breakdown with a difference. Rather than go through the hand in one go, I’m going to stop at each decision point and give you a chance to think about the spot and what you would do.

A cash game hand

One of my students writes:

“This hand is from a 2/5 live cash game in Vegas. LoJack opens to 15 and I threebet to 45 with black Kings in the hijack. It folds back to him and he calls. Pot is 97 and I have 480 behind.

The flop came 987 two spades one diamond. He checks. My thinking in game was that while I would check this board at a very high frequency, this is one of the hands I want to bet, both for protection and value. On this very wet board, it benefits strongly from folds so I sized up to two thirds pot. 

After my opponent folded however, I thought this bet size might be a mistake, as it strengthens my opponents continuing range too much to hands I’m not in great shape against with my kings. What do you think?”



I’ll be back in a few days to give my response, but before I do, ask yourself what you’d do in this situation, and why.

Would you:

(1) Check

(2) Bet small (quarter to third pot)

(3) Bet big (two thirds pot or more)

Assigning ranges

Before considering what we should do on the flop, we should do the following:

(1) Assign ranges to both players based on the preflop action

(2) Evaluate how those ranges interact with the board to see which player (if any) has a range advantage

(3) Based on that evaluation, work out what our strategy should be with our entire range (not just our actual hand) 

OK, let's consider the preflop ranges. In these spots, we always know our own range (or at least we should) but we have to guess and make assumptions on our opponent's range. We may know what their range should look like from a game theory perspective, but their actual range may be a lot different in practise.

In this case, my student's range looks like this:


This is a well-constructed balanced polar range consisting of all the strongest hands we want to three bet for value (and don't mind getting 4 bet) mixed in with some suited broadways that flop very well (but can be released if they face a 4 bet), some middling pairs that can flop sets and give us board coverage on boards with no high cards, and a couple of bluffs with blockers that can also flop very well (A5s and A4s). Some of these hands are a mix: the hands with a "1" are always threebet but the others only some of the time. For example 99 is 0.4 meaning we threebet it 40% of the time and flat the other 60%.

OK, now let's look at villain's range. Obviously we can't be sure exactly what the range is, but since villain is a competent reg we can make some assumptions about their range:

(1) It probably doesn't include very strong hands that always 4 bet, likes aces (so to a certain extent the range is capped)

(2) It probably includes other strong hands like KK, AKo and AQo some but not all of the time, as villain will split between sometimes 4 betting these hands and sometimes flatting

(3) It mostly consists of medium strength hands, as well as some suited connectors like 65s that flop very well for board coverage (so it's largely what we refer to as a condensed range: one consisting mainly of medium strength hands)

(4) There are no unsuited weak hands like AJo and down that always get folded to the threebet (as they should) or occasionally gets turned into a light 4 bet if villain thinks we are 3 betting too much, or they're feeling frisky

With that in mind, we get a range that will look something like this:


Evaluating the flop

Now that we have assigned ranges to both players, we can move on to consider whose range hits this flop best. A cursory glance suggests that while the in position 3 bettor has more overpairs, they have less hands that connect with this board than villain, which suggests villain has a range advantage here.

To work out how much of a range advantage, we would need to look at every single hand in both players ranges and work out how often it's likely to be the best hand on this flop, and to stay ahead on every possible turn and river. Luckily, solvers can do this at the click of a button. Loading these ranges into PIO and letting it do the work for us, we learn that in pure equity terms the out of position player has a clear advantage, almost 55/45.

Looking at the equity of both ranges is a good place to start when considering range advantage, but EV is more important. EV represents how much a particular hand will win on average (averaged across every possible run out and opponent holding). Luckily, the solver is also very good at evaluating this for us. In this case, PIO tells us that out of position's overall EV is just over $60, and hero's just under $45. Note that these always sum to $105 (the current size of the pot) but it's actually possible for an individual hand to have an EV greater than the current pot! For example, if we are lucky enough to have threebet 99 and got this flop, our EV is now almost $200, because not only can we expect to almost always win the current pot but sometimes our opponent will put more money into the pot which we can also win. By contrast, while KK is a very strong hand on this board, it's EV is only a little over $75, because not only is it vulnerable but if a lot more money goes into the pot it won't be the best hand as often, and even when it is it's vulnerable to being outdrawn. Note that tens actually has higher EV (over $85) because if it's currently behind it has a better chance to make a really strong hand like a straight, so it plays better in big pots.

Now let's look at it from villain's perspective. Firstly they have slightly more sets on this board. When they do flop a set though, they'll make slightly less on average by virtue of being out of position, We said above that if the 3 bettor flops a set of nines they can expect to make almost $200 on average, but if out of position does, their EV is just over $185. Despite positional disadvantage though, some hands are worth more out of position. For example, we saw if in position player has KK it's worth about $75, but if villain has KK it's worth over $85, by virtue of the fact it's the best hand more often and less likely to be outdrawn. The nuts on this board is JT, and if we look back to the ranges we assigned, we can see in position player never has this hand, but out of position can have JTs. These are the highest EV hands possible on this board, JTs spades (nut straight and flush draw) is worth over $233, JTs diamonds (nut straight and backdoor flush draw) is worth a little over $210, while the other two JTs combos (nut straight but no flush draw) are worth about $208.

We can summarise all this as follows:

(1) Out of position has a clear equity advantage and an even bigger EV advantage on this flop

(2) Out of position also has more really strong hands like straights, sets and two pairs (this is referred to as the nutted advantage)

Because of this, out of position can play this flop very aggressively, and in position has to be a lot more cautious. The first thing the villain (out of position player) should be asking themselves is given how good a flop this is for their range, should they be donking some hands, or should they always check to the raiser?

That's the question I want you to ask yourself now. Imagine you're the villain this case and you have the range illustrated above, what hands if any would you donk, and what sizing would you use?

I'll be back again in a few days to look at what the solvers says the villain's strategy should be, and to explain why. 


Donking strategy

To donk or not to donk, that is the question. After I posted part 2, there was some discussion about this on Twitter and Facebook. Many felt they'd check their entire range to the raiser, intending to check raise all their strong hands. That was a very viable strategy a few years ago when preflop aggressors cbet far too often (sometimes 100%), but the problem with that strategy nowadays as Andy Hills pointed out on Facebook is that any competent villain will recognise this is a much better board for out of position, and will just check behind a lot. Because of this, as out of position, we want to go ahead and lead many of our strong hands. This has two advantages: we get more money into the pot when we have a strong hand (not allowing opponent to check behind), and because we have a lot of hands we are leading for value, we get to do a lot of semi-bluffing.If we lead a hand like AT, opponent may fold a stronger hand like AQ, which is obviously great for us.As a general rule the more value bets you have the more other hands you can also lead. I say other hands rather than "bluffs" for a couple of reasons. First we have a lot of strong semi-bluffs (like ATs) that would like opponent to fold but don't hate if he calls either because they can make a very strong hand on a later street. Second, we have some weaker hands (like underpairs to the board) that aren't exactly value bets or bluffs but still benefit when opponent folds. If we donk a hand like 22, we can be pretty happy if opponent folds AQ which is behind but has lots of equity, and betting and forcing him to put more money into the pot to continue is a better result for us than checking and letting him check behind and get a free card.

Now that we have established this is a board out of position should donk (lead) a lot, the next question is bet sizing. When choosing a sizing on flops, there are a number of factors to take into account:

(1) The bigger our range advantage the bigger we go as far as sizing is concerned. In this case out of position has a significant but not massive range advantage: in position has some sets, all the overpairs and therefore has a few hands that can face a lot of heat and a lot more that can call at least one bet. In these circumstances, you generally don't want to bet too big, which has the further disadvantage of being easy to play against (opponent can just continue with strong hands and fold weaker ones)

(2) The bigger we bet, the more we get to bluff. In situations where we have a relatively small number of very strong hands and lots of hands we'd like to bluff, we generally size up (thereby polarizing ourselves). Conversely, in situations where we want to bet a lot of hands not just very strong ones for value (to prevent opponent checking behind) we generally choose a smaller sizing, with less bluffs. The more equity our bluffs have as semibluffs the more of them we can bet at the smaller sizing. This is clearly such a situation, so it's no surprise that even though I set the solver up so that it could bet third pot, half pot, two thirds pot and 1.2x pot (overbet) it only ever really uses the smallest sizing, third pot.

So without further ado, let's look at the solver recommended donking range:

The first thing to note here is just how often the solver advocates donking: roughly 60% of the time.

The next thing to note is that every single hand in its range is what is called a mix, meaning we sometimes check sometimes bet. The reasons for this are as follows:

(1) We don't want to bet all our strong hands all the time. If we do this, what does that it mean when we check? It means our checking range becomes a check fold range. To avoid this, we have to hold some strong hands back that we can check raise (and check call).

(2) If we take the same action every time with a certain type of hand (for example Tx that is openended), then we are exposed on some turn cards when we have taken the other action. For example, if we always bet our open enders, and our opponent picks up on this, then when we check and the turn is a Jack, we can't have the straight.

In the above image, the red bar for each hand on the grid represents how often we bet at equilibrium, and the green bar how often we check. You probably won't be too surprised to see that our strongest hands like straights and top set are bet the most frequently (but not always: as noted earlier we need to be able to check call or check raise them sometimes). Our strong draws are also bet very frequently, because they like when opponent folds (and we win without needing to get there) but don't mind getting called (they can still get there) or even raised (they can call a raise). By contrast, our least frequent leads are hands that don't have much going for them (but may have some showdown) like A3s or KQs.

Ok, now let's flip seats again and asks ourselves how in position should play versus a donk lead. This is something many players struggle with (which is a strong reason to implement don leads into your game). Look back at the preflop range in position has and ask yourself which hands they should fold to a donk lead, which hands they should call, and which hands (if any) should be raised.

I'll be back in a few days with solver results.

Defending against donks

Here's how PIO responds as the in position player facing a donk lead foe half pot:

Overall, PIO advocates folding about 25% of our range, calling 62%, and raising 13%. The first thing to notice is that this is a lot of folding. Because the out of position player is betting half pot, if we fold more than a third of the time, they're making money on the lead even if they never win the pot when we don't fold. Folding 25% is getting up there towards that, so once you add in the times we continue but out of position wins the pot you can see just how profitable the lead is.

Looking at the grid, you can see that most hands are a mix, meaning the solver advocates mixing two or sometimes all three of the possible responses (raise, call or fold). The only hands that have a pure response are 88 (middle set) and 66 (underpair with an open ender) which are only ever called (on a practical note, any time you see a low frequency play of under 5% like the raises for both these hands in the image above, you can ignore them as they usually tend towards zero when we let the solve run for longer, and even if they don't you sacrifice little or no EV by not implementing these low frequency plays and make your strategy much easier to implement).

Some hands mix calling and folding, for example A4s. This is slightly deceptive as it's a pure call when we have a flush draw (A4 spades) and a pure fold otherwise. Note that a backdoor flush is not enough to call in this case (this is a mistake a lot of players make thinking any nut backdoor can't be folded)

By contrast, AQs and KQs are always called when it has a flush draw, but we don't fold the diamond versions that have backdoor flushdraws. So what do they have over A4s that makes them strong enough to continue? The answer is twofold: the queen is an additional overcard to the board that will pull us ahead more often if we hit it, and it also gives us an additional backdoor straight draw. PIO advocates mostly calling (80%) and raising the rest of the time with these hands.

AKs is folded without a backdoor, which is another mistake I see a lot of players make thinking the hand is strong enough to call flop and see what develops on turn. AKs in diamonds are mostly called and occasionally raised, whereas AKs spades doesn't want to fold or reopen the betting so is always just a call.

AKo, AQo and KQo are generally just folded unless they have a spade to give them a backdoor flush draw. When they have a spade they're essentially very similar to AQs diamonds, so it's not surprising the strategy is identical: mostly call, sometimes bluff raise.

AJs, KJs and QJs are stronger hands again since they have a gutshot to ho with their overs (and in some cases a flush draw or a backdoor flush draw). This added equity means we no longer want to raise diamonds as much and risk facing a reraise so we just call, and now the hands with no backdoor flush draws are the ones that are occasionally called but sometimes bluff raised. The spade version of these hands are now strong enough to be played aggressively, and the solver raises AJs 60%, KJs 16% and QJs 9%.

ATs and KTs are open ended. With a flush draw they are strong enough to be played aggressively (ATs spades raises 60% and KTs 30%). Without one they are just called.

The overpairs are all mixes between calling and raising, and the presence or not of a spade in our hand is pretty crucial.We are more inclined to raise aces with a spade (40%) than without (15%). Kings with a spade also raise 40%, but without a spade are raised only 10% of the time. Queens is interesting because it's almost never raised, which is often the case with strong but not super strong made hands with weak backdoors. Jacks on the other hand is a stronger hand on this board with its gutshot. With a spade it's raised 40% and without 15% (the exact same strategy as aces). Tens also raises more frequently with a spade (40%) than without (5%).

That leaves us with the sets. As stated earlier, 88 is a pure call. 99 on the other hand is normally raised: with a diamond (blocking backdoor flush draws and pairs) it's raised 92%, without the diamond only 57%.77 with a spade is raised two thirds of the time, but without one it's never raised.

OK, so that's how we respond if the villain donk leads into us. But to return to the question posed in part one, what do we do with kings (and the rest of our range) if checked to?

Would you:

(1) Check

(2) Bet small (quarter to third pot)

(3) Bet big (two thirds pot or more)

I'll be back in a few days with answers.

Continuation betting and sizing considerations

We have already said that this isn’t a great flop for us so one we need to check behind a lot. Assuming both players are playing GTO ranges our range consists of:

(1) Some sets. We can have all the sets but we would also call 99 88 and 77 some of the time so actually we don’t have many sets. We have no straights so sets are our strongest hands

(2) We have no two pair but all the overpairs which are strong but vulnerable on this flop.

(3) We have no other one pair hands so all that remains are overcards and hands like A5s. With not much Tx and no 6x apart from 66, we don’t have many open ended straight draws. We have some Jx type hands that give us two overs and a gutshot, some flush draws and back door flush draws, plus a lot of hands that have only two overcards 

Our opponent on the other hand has:

(1) Made straights (JTs and 65s), all the sets, and some two pairs (98s and 87s)

(2) Not as many overpairs as we have but some pair and a draw hands (T9s, 76s) and more underpairs

(3) A lot less high card only hands 

It’s easy to see when we break it down like this that our opponent’s range is stronger. PIO indicates that overall they have a 55/45 equity advantage on this board and because of the nutted advantage an even bigger EV edge (60/45). 

This means as discussed in the previous section that the opponent can donk a very high frequency on this board having a lot of strong hands that don’t want to let us check behind, and a lot of good bluff candidates that would like us to fold but can improve to winning hands if we call. PIO donks 60% here and checks only 40% as the out of position player. I was interested to see what it wanted to do in position when checked to. As we both expected, it checks a lot (58% of its range). The interesting thing is that when it does bet, it always uses the small sizing of one third pot. I gave it the options to bet half pot, two thirds pot and 1.2x pot but it never uses this size.

This might seem a little counterintuitive at first when we think about just our value range and how much a lot of it wants to “protect” or deny equity to our opponent. However, when we expand our considerations to our opponent’s range (which contains a lot of very strong hands that can call no matter how much we bet) and our own bluffs, it suddenly becomes clear why the solver prefers the smaller size. We struggle to find a lot of good bluffs on this flop, and the bigger we bet the more of them we need to find. Even when we choose the smaller size of third pot, to get up to the required number of bluffs, PIO ends up having to use some hands that don’t seem like great bluffs. For example, a hand like KQs that has no flush draw front or back door is still bluffed almost three quarters of the time. 

That combination of factors makes this a spot where even if we think our big hands want to bet big for protection, a better way to play our overall range is to use a smaller sizing of one third pot.

But does anyone actually donk?

Recent Chip Race guest Callum made the excellent point that while the above analysis is predicated on out of position having an aggressive donking strategy advocated by the solvers, in practise most players don't have a donking strategy, and always "check to the raiser". Callum went on to look what happens if we node lock (fix) the out of position player's strategy to checking entire range, and the result unsurprisingly is that we now check behind a lot more.



As you can see, the only hand in our range that really wants to bet now is 99 (top set), and it balances this with some low frequency betting of other hands. Given that 99 loses less than a dollar in EV by checking rather than betting, we can simplify our strategy to simply checking our entire range behind. This is a very common exploit in position versus opponents who don't donk on boards that clearly favour them: simply check behind, take a street out, and see what they do on the turn.

Callum also points out that even when players do have a donking strategy, it's very hard to be balanced. In practise, most players will lead their strong hands (the ones that really don't want to allow a check behind) but won't find enough bluffs, making the donk leading range too strong, and by extension their checking range too weak. Faced with this strategy, the solver now flips to betting 100% of the time when checked to. This is a point I always try to hammer home to my students: if you bet all your strong hands out of position, that's all well and good when you have a strong hand, but means when you check your range is too weak to take any heat, and makes you very easy to exploit. Conversely, if you're playing against someone who always bets their strong hands, then always pounce on their checks.

On to the turn

I asked on Twitter for suggestions for interesting turn cards if we bet the flop and get called, so there's going to be one last instalment to the blog looking at what we do on certain turn. Before I reveal solver results, I want you to consider what you would do on the following turn cards if checked to:
(1) 3s
(2) 3c
(3) Qd 
(4) Jc
(5) 8c 
(6) 9c

Before we look at specific turns. let's ask ourselves whose range is stronger after the flop goes check bet call. As noted before, this is a very good flop for out of position, and when it comes down they have an equity advantage of almost 55/45. Now let's consider what happened on flop, and also what didn't happen, and how this affects the ranges:

(a) Out of position chose to check rather than bet (donk). Given that he will be donking many of his stronger hands (with some weaker ones for balance), this weakens his range somewhat to 52/48

(b) In position elects to bet rather than check. This removes weak hands he's giving up with from his range so he now has a slight equity edge

(c) Out of position elected to call the bet rather than raise or fold. This removes some strong hands that would check raise, and all the weaker hands that just give up, so overall out of position's range is strengthened (to 52/48 again)

OK now let's have a look at the specific turn cards.

3s

This is a scare card but not one that hits either player that much better than the other. Ii's slightly better for in position who has more flushes (11% of the range compared to 9%) so the overall equity advantage for out of position is reduced to a smidgen over 50%. Given that this isn't a good card for out of position and it introduces more nutty hands into in position's range, out of position has no leads on this card, checking 100%. In position conversely gets to do a lot of betting now, and uses a hefty two thirds pot sizing with 62% of its range (comprised mainly of flushes, sets and overpair, balanced with a lot of ace high, king high and air both with and without a spade).It also bets some weaker hands (11% of the range) at a smaller one third pot, and checks the rest of the time. With black kings specifically, the solver always bets again, usually (over 85%) at the bigger sizing.

3c

This bricky looking card is actually very favourable for out of position, as it does nothing to improve in position. Out of position's range advantage swings back up over 56%, and as a result can lead some hands (12% of the range bets one third pot).This is mostly overpairs and better mixed in with some air. Facing a lead, in position mixes raising and calling with kings, mostly raising with the spade and calling without. Facing a check, in position bets less frequently than on 3s. The bigger sizing of two thirds pot is now only used 37% of the time, the smaller sizing 18% and the rest of the time we check behind. With black kings we actually start throwing in some checks (15%), we bet third pot 28% and two thirds the rest of the time.

Qd 

This is one of the worst cards for out of position, whose equity drops to 43%. In position has a lot more Qx. As a result out of position has no leads, and when he checks, in position can just bet practically everything for one third pot, including kings.

Jc

This card doesn't favour either range particularly, with equities remaining 52/48 in favour of out of position. Because of this, there's no leading by out of position, but in position can't autobet when checked to. The GTO response is to check behind 49%, bet small (third pot) 23% and big (two thirds pot) the rest of the time. On this card, black kings is mostly checked (57%) and when bet can go small (20%) or big (23%).

8c

Another card which barely changes the equities, so out of position always checks, but in position response is interesting. The solver wants to bet most of the time (65%) and only uses one sizing, two thirds pot. The reason for this is the nuts advantage shifts dramatically. On the flop out of position had JTs, in position did not. With the board pairing the value of that hand is degraded, but the value of the flopped sets in in positions range (which have now boated or quadded up) shoots up. With such a strong nuts advantage now, in position can bet big for value and as a bluff with a lot of hands. With kings specifically, we also bet this size.

9c

This is essentially the same as the 8c and strategy is almost identical.


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