Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Why you lose at poker

Towards the end of my running career, I was introduced to the crowd on one starting line by the PA announcer as "a professional gambler". This annoyed my wife no end, as she felt it summoned up the image of a degenerate at odds with what I actually did for a living. But of course, it's precisely what I do for a living, albeit I confine my "gambling" strictly to poker. What separates the professional gambler from all other varieties is that we confine ourselves (or at least try to) to gambles where we believe we have a legitimate edge. Yes, we're gamblers, but we're gamblers continually backing evens shots at 5 to 4 or better. Most non professionals are doing precisely the opposite. From a gambling theory perspective, the key to long term success in poker is simple: it's the ability to identify or estimate with reasonable accuracy the actual odds in any given scenario and then compare them to the odds being offered. If you don't know how often your flush draw is going to come in, or how often your pair will flop a set, then you're just a mug gambler betting randomly on horses whose form you cannot assess.

The fact that I'm pretty much a fish in all forms of gambling other than poker these days was brought home when, as a bonus to winning entry to the Winter Festival on their site, Paddy Power gave me a €50 freebet. Not realising that in these cases you don't get your stake back, I made the rookie mistake of backing the closest thing to a certainty I could find (Katie Taylor to win gold at the Olympics) thinking I was locking up €58.33 in equity. My friends more familiar with the ways of the bookie shop quickly set me right on that one. Oh well, at least Katie won and made me €8.33 richer.

I watched a fair bit of the Olympics. One of my friends who is a very astute sports bettor asked me for my thoughts on some of the distance events. I persuaded him that two each way bets in the male triathlon he was considering were sound and likely to pay dividends (both did), but that a longer shot in the men's 5000 metres wasn't. After Mo looked very jaded in his semi, my friend thought he should be opposed in the final. I talked him out of this, pointing out that the semi came too soon after the 10000 metres for Mo to have recovered, but he should be okay by the final.

The fact that he turned to me for technical advice on tapers, recovery and how to assess form in distance events underlined in my mind why this guy is a successful sports bettor. He has a similarly meticulous approach to his craft as a poker player (at which he is also ridiculously successful). The key is not that you have to know everything: you just have to know the right questions and people to ask. At every stage of my poker career, I've been lucky enough to have the right people around willing to answer my questions.

My only recent live poker outing was the 888 Super Stack event in Citywest. I got dragged along to this by Daragh Davey. So I pretty much went along with the idea that I'd gamble it up and either get a stack or be gone early. I've often gone into smaller events with that plan but never managed to execute it: in running I seem to be incapable of just flicking it in to gamble. Years of training to wait for good spots is hard to override I guess. Once again I basically grinded my way through day one to finish up on starting stack but down on average.

I've had a lot of short day 2's this year but this wasn't one. I ran very well until the final table but then lost a few flips to bust in 7th. Unfortunately you can't choose when to run good and my year so far proves it: I've run shockingly bad in all the bigger events, and the live events I've run best in tend to be the least important.

The most interesting aspect of the weekend was listening to my fellow competitors talk about poker. The standard was considerably lower than at a typical live event in Ireland. A common characteristic of what are sometimes referred to euphemistically as recreational players (or enthusiasts) is that they comment both on their own play and that of others at the table much more than more experienced players do. In doing so, they run the risk of basically opening their play book up to the scrutiny of more experienced players. A lot of the ideas expressed are not just counter-intuitive: they're downright bizarre and counter-logical. One guy explained to an opponent that "you should have known I had the best hand when I raised: if I thought I had the worst hand I'd just have called". Folding didn't seem to be an option in his world, or the idea that calling when behind might not be long term profitable. Another guy kept getting the blinds with aces and massive opens designed to tell the world he had them. Each time the "steal" got through, he'd show the aces and express delight that everyone had folded because "aces get cracked more than half the time". So apparently aces are an underdog to any old random hand: who knew?

To hear players from different ends of the skill spectrum talk about the game, you'd swear they were talking about two different games. And in a sense, they are. One of the great things about any complex game such as poker is that there are many ways to look at it, many many different ways to play it well, and an even bigger number of ways to play it badly. I'm told by friends who have more experience of playing live with recreational players that quite a lot of them are mystified by the success of myself and others who make our living from the game. They tend to ascribe it either to luck or online being rigged. I've lost count of the number of times I've been approached at live tournaments by someone who says the following:
(1) I've done very well in the past few months live but....
(2) I just can't win online.

My inner translator parses this into "I'm a luckbox live over a meaningless sample size of a few dozen live tournaments but when I play online over a more meaningful sample size, variance catches right up on me". I don't say this of course: that sort of bluntness wins few friends and is a good way to go about getting a gratuitous hiding. Instead I usually just stand there smiling and nodding while they go on to give me their theory as to why they lose online (at this point, it's nearly always a conspiracy theory I'm listening to and smiling and nodding at). Sometimes they try another tack and ask me for my theory on it all. Again, if I were a more blunt individual unconcerned about attracting unsolicited hidings, I'd probably just say "You lose at poker because you're bad at poker. Well, maybe not bad, but just not very good, and certainly not good enough to beat it long term over a meaningful sample size. You might get lucky over a sprint sample size of a couple of dozen live tournaments, in much the same way that I might walk into the shop tomorrow, pick up a Lottery ticket and win. But if I do that a statistically meaningful number of times like a few million, then I'm just burning money. As are you if you play enough poker online for variance to work itself out".

I often get asked for advice on what they need to do to win online. As I stand there gazing at their face which looks so expectant I can almost imagine they're hoping to hear just one phrase or word or concept or site or software tool that will turn it all around for them, and I find myself at a total loss as to what I should say. The reality is if you lose online, it's because you're not good enough. The only solution is to get better. The only way to do that generally is to work really really hard at it. But that doesn't seem to be what people want to hear. They want to hear about some secret shortcut, or killer concept. Maybe there's one out there, but if there is, I don't know about it. Even after typing all this up, and thinking about it some more, when faced with the question of what advice to give people who want to get better or how to stop losing, I've got nothing other than this: Work harder.


Excellent blog - as always.

Ross Jarvis

You seem to be turning to the dark side a bit


Well said. Best blog post yet.

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