Terrence Chan

follow me as I play poker and look for new ways to get punched in the face

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Thinking about the wrong things
terrencechan
I got a free subscription to Bluff magazine for my sequestered final table in 2007. Since then, they've mostly been piling up in the bathroom, alternating with old issues of The Economist.

On my most recent trip to the bathroom, I stumbled across Justin Bonomo's August 2008 article entitled "Determining the Situation". I thought it was an interesting piece about thinking in poker, and is probably the first time I've ever finished an entire >500-word article in that magazine.

In the article, Justin creates a fictional hand from Day 1 of the WSOP main event where on a board of Qh-9h-3s-4h-4x, the protagonist named John has AhQs, has bet the river for value, and gets raised by an opponent named Tom. The story goes on, narrating what the other players at the table immediately start thinking:

"Daniel Negreanu gets moved to the table...He sees Tom is a grey-haired, slightly overweight white male in his late 40s...His chips are neatly stacked, and Daniel pegs him as a tight, conservative player. He then notices that Tom’s hands are shaking terribly, and Daniel just knows he has a huge hand."

"When the turn card came down, Tom was calm: no shaking...Tom didn’t start shaking until John pulled his cards back in close and put his protective chip back on his cards...Joe is sure that Tom is bluffing."

"Internet legend Chris9215 was watching the whole hand...Chris has also seen Tom’s tight play all day and assumes he has a strong hand...He laughs to himself about how bad and predictable live players are as he waits for John to fold and for Tom to politely show him the nuts (or close to it)."

"Michael is also at the table...Tom mentioned [to Michael] how he had won his seat for the WSOP at Bodoglife.com...They discussed strategy for online tournaments, and Tom said he always uses the same strategy. He plays very patiently and waits for big hands...Michael had seen Tom play so patiently and tight that he was sure that Tom had a huge hand against John."

"Matt...notices the frenzy in which Tom’s feet are shaking and rubbing up against each other. Matt doesn’t care about anything else. He sees how nervous Tom is and is 100% sure he is bluffing."

"Will has noticed something...their table is next to break. Will isn’t quite sure how savvy Tom is, but he is thinking to himself, 'This would be a sick spot for Tom to use his tight image to get away with a big bluff. The table is breaking soon, so this will be his last chance to do that before having to rebuild his image again.'"

In the fable, John makes the call and Tom shows him JsTs -- a missed straight draw. Justin goes on to explain that while all the individual players had valid reasons to believe that the player was either bluffing or had a big hand, none of them had all the information.

Justin's moral of the story is (I think) that while there is plenty of information available at the table, there is substantial difficulty in collecting, processing and synthesizing all that information. He goes on to say that once you are able to use all of this information, you will be able to come to the right decision. He says some incorrect things like, "against an unknown player facing a big bet on the river, it would be a mistake to always fold without a huge, huge hand. Your opponents would be able to start bluffing you left and right. However, if you are against a very tight player, this can often become the optimal strategy." Another incorrect, but perhaps forgivable statement is, "In every poker situation, there is always one optimal play."

But overall, what I took from the article was Justin's fictional characters navel gazing about the ridiculous "tells" and presumed playing style of the player. The quotes above could have been verbatim from actual conversations I have overheard (and sadly, been involved in). Last week while playing the WCOOP main event, a friend who will go unnamed was sweating me via instant messenger. At one point, I played a pot of almost complete insignificance where I called a raise and folded the flop. The next hand I raise again, and my friend says something like, "I hope you have a real hand so they think you're tilt raising."

This speaks to a theory that I have, and that's basically that almost all poker players are thinking about the wrong things. The genius of the article is that Justin is able to wonderfully narrate precisely the kind of things that mediocre poker players absurdly overemphasize. Whether someone is tapping his feet, or entered a satellite, or listening to his iPod, or is wearing sunglasses is a miniscule part of his overall strategy, and exactly the kind of stuff you should not be thinking about when you are in a hand against the player. Learn to play the goddamn hand. Learn to think the hand through. If you absolutely have no fucking idea what to do and are pretty much down to flipping a coin, then maybe you can start ascribing something to his foot-tapping, his hairstyle, or the way he chews his gum.

Mediocre poker players don't think (enough) about how to play hands properly. They don't think about how much value a hand has in a given situation. They don't think about the other hands they could hold in that situation, and the proper response of the opponent to their range. They don't think about any of this stuff because it's not fun and not sexy to do so. It's fun and sexy to think about whether a guy capitalizes his screen name, or that the guy has tattoos, or that the girl's boyfriend is sweating him on the hand. It's exciting to make "sick laydowns" and "hero calls". But thinking about how to play poker is not fun. It's a lot of work. It's boring. And it's hard. It just happens to be what makes money.

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But thinking about how to play poker is not fun. It's a lot of work. It's boring. And it's hard. It just happens to be what makes money.

Very well said. The same is true for sportsbetting, perhaps doubly so. It is sexy to think about picking 60% winners, to handicap games better than the people in Vegas, to really show your fanhood and enthusiasm for the game means something.

The reality is that people win money because they know how to shop for the best price, how to spot errant lines, and other complex math that has little or nothing to do with sports at all.

want to agree

(Anonymous)
I agree with your last assessment that thinking about poker very critically is not sexy - it's boring and hard to do, which is why many mediocre players don't do it. And it is very important. But live stereotypes are ridiculously important. I have found them to be extremely accurate. And this hand is obviously fictional because if it were real, the old gray haired man that was shaking and just satellited in to the tournament would show you quad fours. :).

everyone with a keen eye, a copy of caro's book of tells and 20k+ hands of live poker has a bitchload of fun, sometimes logical sometimes not, stories about how a tell has failed them.

my two favorites:

-an over-aggressive player with parkinsons who all the grinders would fold to way too much and giggle to themselves, not realizing it was more his central nervous system than his cards

-once in a homegame someone with lots of low limit internet experience but little live experience made a 4 bet all-in preflop as though he was a method actor who read every single page of the "the guys bluffing" chapter in the eternal book of tells. the player acting (who called with TT), myself, and two other pros at the table agreed that this was the most obvious bluff of all time when we discussed it later. he had AK. at the tail end of our conversation he overheard us mention the hand and said, "i was so relieved when you showed tens, I was trying to make you fold kings!"
:)

Re: want to agree

I don't have Parkinson's, but I do have something up with my nervous system that makes me shake. It is much worse if I have been drinking coffee and/or up late - so when in Vegas, that means I'm shaking even more. It was even worse when I was taking Provigil.

The last time I was in Vegas, I was shaking the whole time at the table, to the point where a guy next to me asked if I was okay and I quietly explained to him that I just had some condition.

Later in that same game I ended up with quad kings and was shaking - same old shaking as always - and someone across the table loudly told the whole table and pointed to me shaking while putting in my bet that I must have had a monster hand because I was shaking so bad.
Other than thinking what a colossal cock this guy was, I had to laugh that he happens to notice it on a hand where I actually do have a monster.

I laughed and said that I hadn't gotten much sleep and had been shaking all day, and said "I should probably get it looked at by a doctor or something - a few more hands first" - the guy next to me then piped up and vouched that I had been shaking the whole time.
So I ended up getting action on the quads and pissed off those left in the hand.
Including the dealer sitting next to me who when I took my chips and joked "I'm just going to end up spending this all on hookers and blow, and then wasting the rest," she sucked her teeth and made some comment under her breath clearly indicating she did not approve of the comment.
I was like wtf lady, you're in Vegas, how could that possibly be shocking to you here, you must be new.

"I know that guy, he's the one that got banned for multi-accounting online tournaments. I bet he's just impatient from only playing one account of live poker and is running a bluff out of boredom!"

I agree with part of what you say, yes its very important to learn overall strategy and how to play hands and situations with no external information to help you exploit. Yes, many mediocre players over emphasize the importance or there ability to use observational information, such as body language or stereotypical profiling.They also tend to emphasize more the result of a , "sick laydown" or ",hero call" rather then whether they had enough information for the play to really have been positive EV.

That being said, this is no limit, full table tournament poker not HU limit. Exploitive play dominates full table, no limit holdem, and many of the best tournament and no limit ring game players in general use highly exploitive play. One of the most important parts of exploitive play is narrowing hand ranges. When your moved to a table and you've only played with a player for a short period of time Its not ridiculous to try and use information such as ,"He is a grey-haired, slightly overweight white male in his late 40s...His chips are neatly stacked, " to help narrow an opponents range. Now if your trying to use the information to make, "hero plays" that's a different thing. But if you know how to play hands and situations correctly based on different ranges, but just haven't seen enough hands to have a very good range for an opponent yet, then observational information can be a good way to do better then guessing. Yes most players are not great at synthesizing this information correctly enough to give them a huge edge but a few gifted players are. They might however not be able to explain it to you in your language.

If a truly gifted live no limit player with no formal education, says to you, "I use a combination of a players dress and appearance, mixed with the way he stacks his chips, the way he's played thus far, combined with the price of his girlfriends purse and jewelry, his social ethnic background and known physical reactions to certain stressful situations, to get a read on a guy." You might translate that to, he uses Bayes Therom (of many pieces of information correlating with one another), to narrow a guys hand range for a particular situation. Its just a matter of semantics

All the luck in the world isn't gonna change things for these guys. They're simply overmatched. ZeeJustin isn't playing with his other accounts, but then again, he's not playing against them either...

They wear their tells like signs around their necks. Facial tics, nervous fingers. A hand over a mouth. The way a cigarette is smoked. Little unconscious gestures that reveal the cards in their hands. Internet legend Chris9215 catches everything.

(Deleted comment)
Opponent responses are not deterministic, or purely predictable.

As an exercise, assume a hand like this: An opponent raises to 3 BB in early position, and everyone folds to you on the button, holding 65s.

Everyone knows that if the money is not very deep, calling with a hand like 65s would be a losing play with negative expectation. But everyone similarly knows that if the money is extremely deep, you should (at least occasionally) call with this hand.

So it's clear that for like a million BB deep, you should call, but with 20 BB deep you should fold. At some stack size between 20-1,000,000 there exists an indifference point where you can do whatever (actually, it's probable that re-raising is correct at some stack sizes).

Also, as you point out, there are probably plenty of situations where you sacrifice some local ev so that the rest of your range goes up in value.

Edited at 2008-09-26 06:04 pm (UTC)

(Deleted comment)
Another poker blogger mentioned your blog as a must read. Great stuff. Enjoyed the hand histories to review your play.

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