The Storytelling Animal

I recently finished The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall. This sentence struck me as being particularly important for poker:

The storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will churn out lies when it can’t.

A big part of being a poker pro, or succeeding in any area where luck plays a large roll, is constantly debunking the specious stories your mind “churns out.” To a beginner, poker seems to be all luck. Whoever has the best cards wins. As we get better, we start to see the ways to influence our luck, by getting maximum value when we have the best hand, getting away cheaply when we’re beat, bluffing judiciously, and so on. But many skillful players overshoot the mark in estimating the roll of skill. Poker pros try to strong-arm this chaotic game into something predictable. It’s true that if you play enough hands, and play skillfully enough, you have a very high chance of winning, but that doesn’t change the fact that, by any reasonable measure, poker is mostly luck.

Likewise many of the events we encounter in poker, which seem so redolent of meaning, probably come down to luck. “I can’t beat this guy.” Maybe he got lucky against you in a few hands. “I knew he was bluffing.” Maybe you were lucky he was bluffing this time. “That hand really turned my session around.” Maybe you were unlucky before, and lucky after, that hand. “I had a good feeling about this hand.” Really?

Another poker pro, a winning player, told me, “I run bad with draws.” I imagine he missed some draws in big, memorable pots, but his storytelling mind turned that into a story that’s not true. A poker player can’t be bad at draws the way a basketball player is bad from three-point range. The cards are dealt randomly. The problem with false stories is that they’re likely to influence how you play. This player likely plays his draws too passively because he “knows” he won’t hit. If you believe all the stories your mind tells you, you’ll end up playing based on your history with luck, rather than your best guess at a sound strategy. You won’t, in fact, play well, unless random events align to teach you a good strategy. That would be very lucky indeed.

The Right Way to Slow Play

While I’m not usually a big fan of slow playing, it’s an important strategy to have in your arsenal. In this hand from the One Drop, Cristoph Vogelsang shows us the right way to do it:

He raises pocket aces, flops a full house on A33, and check-calls all the way. A good place to start thinking about this hand is to consider which would be a better slow play candidate on this board: aces or 43 suited.

I would argue that aces are a far better slow play, for a couple reasons. First, if you try to slow play 43, your opponent could hit a flush or a full house with something like 88, in which case you’ll lose a big pot. With aces, you actually want them to hit a strong second best hand, because you can still beat them. Second, 43 is a better betting hand, because your opponent will probably not fold a pair of aces, but he might not bet every street himself with a hand like A9. When you have AA yourself, it’s very hard for your opponent to have an ace.

So aces has two qualities that make for a good slow play:

Invulnerability: Your opponent is extremely unlikely to make a better hand. If he improves, it will be to a second best hand that you still beat.

Blocks calling hands: If you block the hands your opponent would call down with, betting becomes less valuable, which makes the alternative – slow playing – comparatively more valuable.

It’s important to note that Vogelsang does not take the betting lead at any point. He checks all the way. I see a lot of players check to the river, then suddenly spring into action with a bet. The whole point of this line is that you know your opponent likely has nothing at all and you’re giving him a chance to bluff. If you bet yourself, he can’t really call with nothing, but if you check, he can certainly bet with nothing.

That “bet with nothing” bit is important – this line loses much of its value if your opponent isn’t capable of bluffing his whole stack. It’s largely a way of protecting yourself, and your marginal hands, from an opponent who can do exactly that. If you know your opponent will never run a big bluff, you may as well bet and hope he somehow has something to call with.


In an act of unprecedented spite, Lebron James ignored his own self interest, confirmed tendencies, and the deepest longings of his soul to prove me wrong by returning to Cleveland.

What can I say? My world is in shambles.

Definitely not Cleveland

Now that Lebron has opted out of his contract with Miami, speculation runs rampant over where he’ll end up. New York? L.A.? Miami after all? I don’t know where he’ll land, but I do know where he WON’T go: Cleveland.

Ever since he left Cleveland, I’ve been puzzled by the persistent rumors that he might return. Not because of Dan Gilbert’s unhinged “open letter” – although that didn’t help any – but simply because of Lebron’s trajectory. He is a man bent on hegemony. He has no interest in glorifying his provincial birthplace. This doesn’t end with a heartwarming reunion, it ends with Lebron, high atop the mountain, alone. A shooting star doesn’t return to orbit. Lebron isn’t going back to Cleveland.

Brazil in the World Cup

With one of the best squads in the world and home field advantage, it’s no surprise that Brazil are the unanimous favorites in the World Cup. But by how much? Typical betting lines in Vegas had them around 3-to-1, indicating a roughly 25% chance of winning it all, but forecasts from some prominent analysts pegged them at near 50%. Nate Silver on FiveThirtyEight gives Brazil a 45.2% shot of winning it all, while a report from Goldman Sachs is even more bullish at 48.5%.

If you believe Silver and Sachs, you could walk into any Vegas sports book and make a handsomely profitable bet on Brazil. Yet it’s hard to figure how Brazil can really be even odds to win. In a 32-team field, if all the teams were equal, each would have only a little more than a 3% chance to win, so for one team to have nearly 50% indicates a massive advantage over the field. Given that, you’d expect Brazil to be regarded as the clear top team in the world, but they’re not. Currently they’re only number three in the FIFA rankings. While those FIFA rankings are suspect, and many do consider Brazil to be the world’s top team, it’s not by a landslide. Common opinion puts them on nearly even footing with a handful of other elite teams.

The biggest reason the analysts love Brazil seems to be home field advantage. Not without reason: home teams have historically out-performed their abilities in the World Cup and no European team has ever won a World Cup held in the Americas. Whether you agree with the Vegas line makers or the quants comes down to how much stock you put in home field advantage. The Vegas line represents more of a common sense estimate in a level field, while the math models have a lot of respect for playing at home.

Betting on stuff that matters

Paul Sabin, a Yale historian, has just written a book about a famous wager between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. Ehrlich, a biologist, predicted a looming environmental crisis, while Simon, an economist, believed that human ingenuity would compensate for the drain on natural resources. They put their views to the test with a bet on how the prices of various natural resources would change over ten years. Simon won the bet, causing Ehrlich to completely change his mind and renounce his lifelong advocacy for environmental protection.

No, wait, that second part didn’t happen. Like the guys who “decode” the Bible and predict an apocalypse, Ehrlich didn’t let the unabated existence of the world slow him down. In his support other scientists figured out that he would have won the bet in the majority of decades in the 20th century, so it could be he was right about the general trend and just got unlucky (or lucky, depending on how you look at it).

When it comes to environmental catastrophes, I wonder if a gradual trend is what we should really be looking for, anyway. In gambling we have a term, “fading,” that means avoiding a disaster. If you get all-in with top pair against a flush draw, you’re fading the flush. The fact that we’ve faded an environmental disaster so far doesn’t tell us how lucky we had to get to do so. According to some accounts JFK estimated the chance of nuclear war with the Soviet Union to be at least 50% during his presidency. Certainly, we’ve come close to destroying our whole world in one fell swoop. Every time I turn on public radio I learn about another facet of the environment that’s out of whack – ocean acidity, coral reefs, probably a hundred more I don’t know about. It’s kind of amazing the planet still works as well as it does.

But back to bets. It’s quite unusual for two public figures to bet on something important. During the last presidential election Nate Silver wanted to bet Joe Scarborough that Obama would win. Silver had predicted a comfortable advantage for Obama, while Scarborough opined, “Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.” Scarborough was apparently operating on the principle that any time there are two possible outcomes, they are equally likely, which works pretty well in PLO, but not so much elsewhere. When Obama won, a parade was thrown for Silver and Scarborough was stoned in the public square.

Oops, that also didn’t happen. Scarborough went right on hosting his political commentary show and no one thought anything of it. What Silver didn’t understand is that Joe Scarborough isn’t in the business of being right. His actual business is harder to pin down. Looking a certain way…sounding a certain way…a bit of trolling now and then. That’s all part of it. But making accurate predictions doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it.

When habitual bettors offer a wager to non-bettors and are refused, they think they’ve proven their point: I put my money where my mouth is and he doesn’t. More likely, they’ve just bullied someone who’s not comfortable throwing money around. But more fundamentally, offering a bet implies that what counts is who’s right, and for most people most of the time, it’s not.

Perhaps I was wrong

Well, it would have to happen the day after I wrote about that, wouldn’t it? It got checked through on the flop and turn and the river brought a straight. Player A bets 50, player B raises to 175, player C cold calls, player A re-raises to 500, player B goes all-in for 1500, player C calls, and player A calls. Players A and B roll the nuts. Player C checks his cards and his face falls.

For my part, I still won’t be raising in this spot, because I think I’m more likely to misread my hand than my opponents. I have some strong suits, but knowing my hand isn’t one of them.

Food for thought on a pointless river

This spot has come up a few times recently and it blows me away every time. It will be a board like ace-king-queen-ten on the river, with no flush or full house possible, so a jack plus any other Broadway card makes the nut straight. Someone bets, someone else raises, the first guy thinks for less than a second and pots (raises the maximum). The other guy always calls and they chop the pot.

If you don’t see anything strange about this you’re not the only one. No one ever bats an eye when this happens. But I’d argue that if you’re thinking about playing the river in a reasonable way,  it’s very strange. On a board like this in PLO there aren’t really any second best hands. Either you have the straight or you don’t. So when the first guy bets he’s saying he has the straight. When the second guy raises he’s saying he definitely has the straight. If you’re the first guy and you’re sitting there with the straight, you can’t really make any more money. Either he has the straight and you’re chopping, or he has a bluff and he’s not putting any more money in. If this spot comes up between two good players, usually the first guy just calls to save time. If you wanted to make more money, I guess you could raise the minimum to represent some sort of crazy re-bluff, but honestly the only way you’re getting more money is if the other guy misread his hand or doesn’t know the rules. I guess you could make the case that if the other guy doesn’t know what he has you might as well make the maximum, so you should pot, but that’s awfully optimistic. In any case, the way some people bet, I can tell their thought process has two parts: 1. I have the nuts. 2. Pot.

There are two good things that can happen when you bet on the river. You can make someone fold a better hand (that’s a bluff) or you can get called by a worse hand (that’s a value bet). In other words, no matter how awesome your hand is, it doesn’t do you much good if you can’t get called by a worse hand. When someone instantly pots in that spot, I can tell they’re only thinking about their own hand – not the opponent’s hand. But what the other guy has matters every bit as much as what you have. Now in this spot it doesn’t really matter – you’re not making any money no matter what you do. But when I see someone do this, I can almost guarantee they’re messing up a lot of other spots that do matter.

Poker and the Law

Last month poker pro Ola “Odd_Oddsen” Amundsgard defeated Norwegian politician Erlend Wiborg in a heads-up Pot Limit Omaha match. Amundsgard offered a 1 million kroner ($170,000) “freeroll” to any member of Norwegian parliament who would take him on in a match. If the member of parliament won, he would get 1 million, but if he lost, he wouldn’t have to pay anything.

In Norway, as in the United States, poker’s designation as a game of skill or game of chance is central to the laws governing it. It is perfectly legal to play games of skill for rewards (as in, for example, the prize for winning a chess tournament), but games of chance are considered gambling and fall under more restrictive legislation. Thus, those wishing to loosen the regulations around poker seek to define it as a game of skill, while those wishing to tighten the regulations define it as a game of chance.

The whole debate is based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between skill and chance. It is simply not true that a game is either a game of skill or a game of chance. In fact, there is not even any relationship between the two. More of one does not imply less of the other. It’s easy to think of games with all sorts of combinations between skill and chance: a lot of both (backgammon), a lot of skill and a little chance (chess), a lot of chance and a little skill (yahtzee), not much of either (tic-tac-toe).

As is the case with so many topics, the public debate has become a cynical rehashing of semantics, while the core issues go unexamined. The whole luck-skill thing is a red herring. The real issue, to my mind, is whether adults can do what they like with their own money. It’s ironic that the United States now restricts online poker more severely than many other countries. Poker was created in America and is, along with baseball, football, and basketball, one of the games we use to define ourselves. Yet alongside our frontier tradition of freedom and rebellion, we have an equally strong Puritanical tradition of repression and prudery. Attempts to legislate the lifestyles of our fellow citizens are nothing new.

Wiborg, Amundsgard’s opponent in the match, comes from the side that wants poker legalized. As such, his competitive interest in the match was divided (not that it would have made any difference). The match was primarily a PR event, of course. It is telling, however, that no politicians on the other side jumped at the opportunity to compete. If they really believed what they say, they would have had a 50/50 chance at 1 million kroner. I doubt the members of Norwegian parliament are so rich that they could casually turn that down.

I don’t think the politicians who want to outlaw poker are particularly interested in luck or skill; they just find poker unsavory. The poker players, for their part, mostly understand that this whole luck-skill thing is pretty silly, but feel they have to play the hand they’re dealt. The role of luck and skill of poker can be summed up quite easily: anyone can win a lucky hand, but in the long run skillful players will tend to win. There’s not much more to be said about it, but the public debate has been mired on this issue for years.

Something happened to me recently that I feel is related to all this somehow. I had been meeting with a chess student at the library for a few weeks, but at the end of one lesson, the librarian told me they have a policy against playing games and I would have to put my chess board away. Indeed, rule 11 of the Ann Arbor District Library Rules of Behavior “prohibits board games, gambling, card playing, or other games of chance or skill on Library property, except patrons may play board games when such games are provided by the Library as part of an organized activity.” At the very moment I was warned about my chess board, a crazy guy was ranting about how he’d like to kill Obama. You can’t make this stuff up. Naturally, he wasn’t asked to leave. But the guy with the chess board — that’s something that has to be dealt with right away.

Apart from the general weirdness of outlawing chess in a library, the phrase “games of chance or skill” strikes me as particularly odd. Does that leave any games out? Why not just say, simply, “games”? I suppose the rules were drafted with the help of lawyers and they advised throwing that in there.

In the case of poker, at least, it seems as though the law was drafted by people with no particular knowledge of the subject. With poker and many other subjects, if we frame the debate in the terms of the law, we risk coming to some very silly conclusions.


Dots for fun and profit

Dots is a simple game for two players. You make a grid of dots on a piece of paper (we used to play with a roughly ten-by-ten grid, although there’s no rule about how big it should be). The players take turns drawing a line connecting two dots. If you complete a square, you put your initial in the middle to mark it as yours, and you get to go again. The game ends when the whole grid is filled with lines. The player who owns the most squares wins.

At first, it can be difficult to see which moves allow your opponent to finish a square. Thus, some games are decided by simple one-move oversights. But with a few games under your belt it’s relatively easy to avoid those mistakes. If both players are at that level, the game comes down to who gets the biggest runs of squares, more or less at random. There is, however, one trick that will let you win just about every game if you know it and your opponent doesn’t.

Typically the board develops in such a way that there are big clumps of almost-finished squares. If you can claim one of them, you get the rest in a domino effect. The natural play is to take all the available squares, then look for the least damaging move to pass it back to your opponent. The trick is to not take all the squares. You can leave the last two for your opponent. They get those, but then they’ll have to give you the next big clump and you can repeat the process, claiming all the big tracts and giving away just two piddling squares in return.

Of course, you only get to do this once before your opponent realizes what’s up and uses the same approach in future games. At that point the game just comes down to whoever’s move it is when the good moves run out, which is awfully hard to control.

Which, if you think about it, is kind of weird. Ties are rare in dots. In fact, depending on the size of the grid, a tie might be impossible. There’s no hidden information. So at any point in the game there should be a “correct” result: one side or the other could force a win with perfect play. On the very first line, there are probably some moves that win and some moves that lose. But how do you know which are which? There doesn’t seem to be any way to know, or even to have a better chance of being right. In dots the early part of the game is a tedious formality where both players go according to their whims until the rubber hits the road in the late game. Many of the moves are probably horrible mistakes, but there’s no way to know.

Chess and Go, like dots, are too complex to be solved, but they offer players more satisfying ways to guess at good moves. A good player can often tell who’s winning with just a glance at the position. Some formations of pieces work better than others and, to an expert, a good position “looks good.” In dots, a good position is just one move away from a bad position (if the other side were to move, the result would be reversed). It doesn’t seem possible to develop any sort of feel or intuition, as one can in chess or Go.

As such, dots has little to teach us as game players, except that knowing a simple trick can give us a huge advantage, even if we don’t understand the game deeply. But the edge we get from these tricks is likely to disappear quickly if our opponents are smart and observant.

From the game design perspective dots is more interesting. It shows that for a game to be satisfying, it must be too complex to solve definitively, but still admit of shortcuts, guesses, or heuristics. The players can’t know for sure what the best moves are, or the game would get stale, but they must have ways of approaching good moves, or feeling that they do. We have to feel like we’re getting somewhere, but if we ever get there, the game stops being fun.

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