Friday, March 6, 2015

How (and why) I suck at poker

First, I want to start by thanking everyone who took the time to comment either online or in person in the week or so since my last confession. Given the way my blogging frequency has been tapering off in recent years, and the 50 days between my last two blogs, this one might have been expected to drop some time in late April, but here we are, mostly thanks to you guys who took the trouble to say how much you still enjoy the blog after all these years. It's also been a reasonably interesting week.

On the train into the Fitz End of Month last Thursday I found myself listening to an old Thinking Poker podcast with Gareth Chantler. One thing Gareth said really resonates with me: "I tend to work off the assumption that I suck at poker..." Not many people would describe Gareth as sucking at poker. For readers unfamiliar with him, Gareth is a young man who travels the world supporting himself by beating one of the toughest online games there is, Zoom (he is also in charge of the Full Tilt blog and writes the rather excellent Borderline Gambling for Pokerstars).

As has been widely documented, I made a pretty good start in poker. I never deposited a cent, and spun up a six figure roll from freerolls and signup bonuses. I got headsup in my first live game (in the Fitz), and was crowned European Deepstack champion in my second multiday tournament. That led to a pretty pronounced overconfidence effect which survived until I lost it (along with a quarter of my roll) on my first trip to Vegas.

Since then I've worked on the assumption that I suck at poker, and try to figure out both how and why I suck at poker on a daily basis. 8 years on, I'm stunned at how much I still suck at poker, even though I've improved quite a bit. But despite 8 years and millions of hands, not a day passes by when I'm not faced with at least one situation where I literally have no clue what the best line is. I stare at the screen and the HUD stats and try to run a memory scan through my brain, and all that comes back is "You suck at these spots". So I tag the spot to run through Holdem Resources Calculator later. Or if it's live, I run it by Lappin, Daragh, Nick, Jason, Smidge or Dan. More often that not the number of different answers I get is greater than one, and it's not unknown for it to be greater than five, so I guess I'm not the only one who sucks at poker.

I'm starting to suspect that accepting that I suck at poker, and examining the how and why, is a big part of my overall "success" and longevity. Many of the guys I've seen come and go seemed to have a much higher opinion of their own game than I ever had of mine. That might not just be ego, they may have been better players than me, at least in some senses. But thinking you're perfect or even great is not an attitude that encourages improvement, especially if that improvement requires hard work (which it always does in poker). People tend to overrate the importance of the stuff they do well, and underrate the stuff they're not so good at. I probably do that myself, seeing mental fortitude, discipline, emotional balance, work ethic and game selection trumping technical chops or creativity, but to my mind, winning at poker is simple at least from a procedural point of view. It can be broken down into two basic steps:

(1) Play against people who are worse than you (game selection)
(2) Do that a lot (volume)

The better understanding you have of your own leaks and weaknesses (the how you suck at poker bit), the more likely you are to be able to make the judgements necessary for successful execution of step (1). And if you can move from there to the why you suck at poker, you can not only address existing leaks but possibly cut new ones off at the roots. It's all well and good running the maths on all the unclear spots and working hard on plugging existing leaks, but if you're not careful you can end up just moving the leaks around. As this fine article explains, the human brain has hundreds of cognitive biases arising from a few design flaws in our brains (primarily an overactive pattern recognition algorithm that sees patterns in randomness). Knowing this means you can have the equivalent of a central operator in your brain that critically examines anything you find yourself thinking at the poker table against the list of known biases, with an override option.

My old running coach, Norrie Williamson, in collaboration with professor Tim Noakes, developed a radical model for training long distance runners called the Central Governor theory. The cliffs is that the reason you can run harder and faster as a result of continuous training is essentially not that the muscles get stronger and develop more stamina, but that you convince the part of the brain (the central governor) that determines how fast and far it "allows" you to run (so as not to risk serious damage) to allow you to go a little harder. So training is like a child trying to convince a parent (the central governor) that it can do something safely ("Look ma, no hands").

If there's a central governor in poker, it should be a deeply suspicious parent questioning every new idea the child proposes.

"Are you sure that's an actual tell/betting tendency/read and you're not just seeing a pattern that isn't there?"
"Are you sure you have an edge on this guy post flop to justify this loose preflop call, and that's it sufficient to overcome the preflop edge you're giving him? Are you not just looking for an excuse to play this hand because you're bored?"
"Is this really a fold or are you just convincing yourself it is because you just doubled up and want to hang on to the chips for a while, or it's near the end of day and you're keen to bag up what you already have?"
"Are you really pot committed or are you just calling off the rest of the chips because you've already put so much in there when you know deep down you don't have the right odds to put in the rest?"

I went to the Fitz tired but buoyant. The previous day I'd done my scheduled weekly 30 mile run. I don't normally play after that, but with Mrs Doke still missing in action (or rather in France), I didn't have much to be doing, so after walking the dog and lying on the couch for a few hours watching TV, I fired up the computer and regged a bunch of late session stuff. I ended up winning the $27 30k guaranteed KO on Stars. It's only recently I started playing those (after a conversation with Smidge who described them as the nut games on Stars right now). I put a bit of work into the strategic adjustments you should make for them (and shared my main findings in my next Bluff Europe piece) so it was good to get some pretty quick positive return on that.

I ended up having another late night (or early morning) in the Fitz. My campaigns there tend to go one of two ways:
(a) I start slowly, then run well when the push/fold bit arrives, and end up in the top 4
(b) Same, but I lose the first flip and bust

Thankfully this one was in column (a), and I ended up coming third for 5k. Fun final table with some great young players. The ever impressive Paul McCaffrey bust just before me, and Colm O'Hanlon (fresh from winning the 888 thing in Rathmines) busted me in a race for almost half the chips, before losing headsup to Noel Donaldson (also in good form this year after final tabling the IPC in Galway).

I'd told Lappin I'd stay at his if I missed the last train home but I ended up leaving the Fitz just in time to catch the first morning train. Some much needed kip and another run later, and it was back to the online grind. Because I started a bit later than normal I ended up throwing in some late session turbos I don't normally play, including the $100 10k gtd on Party which I ended up winning. This was also a fun ft as I hit it 1/9 with half the chips, and was able to exploit the ICM misery of the others to get headsup with a 100:1 lead. ICM sometimes gets a bad name as something cowardly nits use as an excuse to keep folding, but the other side of it is once you understand it and have the big tank, you can pound on everyone else with or without cards.

Saturday was back to the live grind in the Maldron. Actually grind is not the right word. From a purely fiscal point of view it makes zero sense for me to play live games in that buyin range, so I do it purely as an enjoyable social experience (as I explained to blogger extraordinaire Danny Maxwell who did a brilliant job photographing and blogging the event for IPB in an interview at one of the breaks).

I didn't make day 2 leaving me free to attack the third leg of a possible PocketFives triple crown on Sunday. With so much on, I was confident of at least getting a shot, but that didn't work out, leaving me two more days to secure the third win.

Monday afternoon was spent in a recording studio for a new venture (full details of which will be announced shortly), after which I instructed my driver (the long suffering Mrs Doke just returned from the country of her birth: she refuses to wear a driver's cap but fulfils the role admirably in every other respect) to get me home asap all the better to start regging qualifying tourneys. Having won already on Stars and Party, that meant casting the web a little wider than normal. I don't play much on Full Tilt these days (it seems more reggy to me than other sites) but I did flick in the $25 10k gtd that starts at 5 because there's not much on at that time of the day with the five figure prizepool needed to qualify for a Triple Crown. I ended up winning that after a pretty tense final table where I ran pretty bad at times and certainly didn't have it all my own way. But I managed to overcome a 2:1 chip deficit headsup to clinch my fourth PocketFives Triple Crown (and first since 2013). So that felt pretty good.

My good run continued into last night where I made a pile of final tables, and won two (the 25k 50r on Party, and an FPS Monaco satellite). I feel like a lot of the work I've put in away from the tables in recent months is paying off, but of course it might just all be variance :)

One last thing: I want to comment on Lee Jones blog on Spin and Goes. I get that it's his job to try and shine these particular turds, but the argument he advances (ignoring a sample size one argument involving one specific player which focuses pointlessly on cEv conveniently ignoring that the main objection to these is cEv counts for less in them than any other poker format) seems to basically boil down to "These are new. New is good. New things in the past were criticised when they were new but they turned out to be good, so if you're against these new things, you're a stick in the mud like those Luddites who prefer film to digital". There are some good arguments that could be made for Spin and Goes, but right now Stars don't seem to want to even try to make them. This particular line strikes me as pretty facile, bordering on insulting to our intelligence as a community. Yes, lots of things that were new in the past were criticised but worked out well. Even more things didn't work out so well. And at the risk of losing the argument purely through Godwin's law, I want to point out that the "you're a stick in the mud if you oppose this new thing" was used by the Nazis for everything.

Related reading:

- Are training sites the poker equivalent of gym memberships? My latest Bluff Europe piece
- A piece on live tells (Poker Player)
- Satellite end game strategy (Poker Player)

Related listening:

- Gareth Chantler (Thinking Poker podcast)
- Me on same (Thinking Poker podcast)


Nice post, sir. Glad you've been enjoying the podcast. I liked what you said about making sure you aren't just using your fancy poker knowledge to talk yourself into fundamentally fishy play. I wrote an article about that for Cardplayer a while back: Congrats on the triple crown.

Keep on running!

Thanks Andrew! TPE on my Ipod now my constant running companion. I especially enjoyed the episode with your Granny: a great slice of Americana


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