The Play Every Hand Game

To deflect charges of being “on lockdown” I started up a challenge with two other players at the table to see who could play more hands. I have the reputation of being a tight player and it’s true that I play less hands than a lot of my opponents. Unfortunately, I think this is just the best way to play 10-handed PLO. It’s often not possible to turn a profit with garbage hands, even if you have a big edge post-flop. But a breath of fresh air is always nice and if nothing else it makes the game more fun. I don’t particularly like folding, it just happens to be the right play pretty often.

Like the trips-and-quads game, the no folding game adds a new wrinkle and it can be fun to figure out the best strategies for new rules. I figured I would be giving away some EV, but as things went on I started to wonder if this rule actually helped me. I felt like I might have been adjusting to the new rules better than my opponents. For example, marginal multi-way hands tend to be better candidates for aggression pre-flop, while nutty one-way hands should often be played passively. Something like 9763 double-suited is often a 3bet-or-fold hand. If you’re determined to play every hand, you can 3bet it. On the other hand, something like AT83 single-suited works better as a call. If you want to stay out of trouble you can, and maybe should, fold both of these hands, but if you are committed to playing a lot of hands it helps to know which to raise and which to call.

It also didn’t hurt that I immediately started god moding (straight flush vs. nut flush, etc.). At least one old man quit the game in bewilderment and terror. At the end of the session I was left wondering if I should open up my game more. At the very least, if you’re comfortable in the games you’re playing and can take a losing session or two, I think it’s a good idea to take a session now and then to drastically change your game and see what happens. Even if it doesn’t work the perspective you gain is likely to be very valuable.

Chess at the Poker Table

I first got into poker by way of chess, and while I don’t play chess tournaments any more, I still teach a few chess lessons and play online – sometimes at the poker table. I’ve got an app on my phone and sometimes when the action’s a little slow…

This is problematic in all the ways you might imagine. I’ve been known to fold a marginal hand so I don’t run out of time in my chess game. It’s also possible that being distracted causes me to play worse. A friend of mine wrote an article on this topic, as he reminds me every time he walks up to the table and I’m on my phone, which is often. He’s right, of course, that it’s better to stay focused, but playing live poker is like walking along a bridge with steep drops on either side. One side is intolerable boredom and the other is playing so bad you’re not profitable. I’m not saying I’m square in the middle of the bridge, but I haven’t fallen off yet.

Once a Canadian kid named Jordan noticed me playing on my phone. We struck up a conversation about chess and pretty soon he had downloaded the app and we were about to play. As if from nowhere, Kip floated into the conversation.

“How much ya playing for?”


“Mind if I book some action?”

Kip is one of those inveterate hustlers who has made his living gambling on one thing or another for decades. He managed to book $25 of side action on me. The game wasn’t very close.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d3 Ng4 6.0-0 0-0 7.d4 Bb6 8.Bg5 Qe8 9.h3 h6 10.Bh4 g5 11.Nxg5 hxg5 12.Qxg4 exd4 13.Qxg5+ Kh7 14.Qf5+ Kg8 15.Qg6+ Kh8 16.Bf6#

48 Hours

Last week I went to a new home game for the first time. I felt like I was in the scene from Goodfellas where Pauli slices garlic for tomato sauce with a razor blade: old guys drinking, cooking, and eating. After hanging out for about an hour we all go into a little room with just a poker table and chairs and start playing. Compared to the smoky, dreary casino, this really feels like what poker is supposed to be. Shooting the shit, having a whiskey, playing cards.

I immediately lose my first two buy-ins, but it’s only $300 at a time, at least at the beginning of the night, so I don’t really mind. Anyway if I lose the first night that should increase my chances of getting invited back. But I start to make a comeback and after a few hours I’m the big winner in the game, sitting with about $5000. It’s always bad form to “hit and run,” but especially since this is my first time at a home game, I can’t leave. More and more players drop out until we’re down to four. I’m hoping someone else will quit so I can go home and sleep, but no one does. We bump up the stakes and keep playing. At one point I get all-in with the best hand for just about all the money at the table, but I lose, then lose some more, and am back to nearly break even. I make another comeback and am up about $3000 when we finally quit at 9:00 a.m.

I’m planning on playing my regular 5/10 PLO game at the casino at noon, and at this point I’m not feeling tired, so I decide to just power through. I get a bagel and coffee at a nearby deli and hang out and read for awhile. I drive to the casino about an hour before the game starts and try to nap a little in my car. At this point I’m starting to get a distinct underwater feeling that I remember from staying up all night in school. I consider just going home and sleeping, but by now the game’s about to start and I don’t want to lose my spot on the list.

When I go in, alongside the usual 5/10 game, there’s a 5/10/20/75 game that’s been going all night with some of the biggest action players. I hesitate for a few minutes, but there’s really no choice. It’s too good of a spot. I jump into the bigger game and immediately lose $4000 in the first orbit. I’m thinking maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, but at least I’m feeling more awake. On my second buy-in I start to win a few pots. I set over set someone for $6000, then get all-in pre-flop four way with aces and hold up. Pretty soon the action players start dropping out and we’re just playing shorthanded with regulars. In contrast to the home game, this isn’t really a spot where I’m obligated to keep playing. In any case, I get the sense everyone is about ready to pack it in. I quit at 6:00 and go home and sleep until the next morning.

Thinking in Strategies

One of the most useful things I’ve learned from poker is that it is often more helpful to think about a strategy, and how the current situation fits into it, than to try to grapple with the current situation in a vacuum.

For example, when you have a strong hand, your first inclination might be to bet; but then you remember that poker is a game of deception, and if you bet your opponent will surely know you have a good hand, so maybe you shouldn’t bet. In the heat of the moment this is quite a difficult knot to untangle. Many people place a high value on deception and end up checking the vast majority of their best hands. They don’t do it as part of a preconceived strategy, but approach the problem anew each time they hold a strong hand, and more often than not the desire to trick their opponents wins out and they check.

If we take a giant step back, how does their strategy look? When they have a good hand they hardly ever bet; and when they are betting they hardly ever have a good hand. Well, that can’t be right. Few would endorse such a strategy, but it is in fact how many people end up playing.

Rather than approaching each hand in a vacuum, it’s helpful to think about an overall strategy. Clearly our best hands are the ones we most want to bet with, since we want to play a big pot. But if we bet with only those hands, it will be obvious that we have a great hand whenever we bet and our opponents can simply fold. Some amount of deception does seem to be necessary. We could try to achieve it by checking our best hands, but then we can’t really bet anything else either, since then we’d never have anything when we bet. Unless we want our whole strategy to be passive, we need to bet some other hands in addition to our best hands. In broad strokes, a good strategy often involves betting most of your best hands, along with some bluffs and semi-bluffs.

I find this way of thinking to be helpful outside of poker as well. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, I found the cases for and against the war very confusing. They have weapons of mass destruction. Or maybe they don’t. Or maybe they do, but they don’t intend to use them against us. Saddam Hussein is a horrible tyrant. But is it our job to depose tyrants? They support terrorism. Or do they? Maybe only a little bit.

It seems to me more helpful to ask, what is our strategy for invading foreign countries? I’m not at all sure what our actual strategy is, but I have a sense it would be difficult to come up with a strategy that would have endorsed invading Iraq without also recommending the invasion of many other countries.


I just came across this old post by Bill Barnwell at Grantland about momentum, or as he calls it, nomentum, because he believes there’s no such thing. As is the case with the hot hand theory, which I wrote about before, there’s a striking disconnect between players, commentators, and fans, who seem to put a lot of stock in momentum, and stats guys, who flatly deny its existence.

I wonder if further research into momentum might follow a similar pattern as the hot hand theory: initial popular assumption that it’s real and important -> rudimentary research uncovers no evidence of the effect -> more nuanced research suggests that the effect is real, but less drastic than commonly believed, and offset by compensatory effects.

Part of the difficulty is that it’s not at all clear what momentum is. The word is used to describe a variety of different phenomena. In order to wrap my mind around momentum, I tried to nail down a definition. At its most basic level, momentum is the idea that what happened before is going to keep happening. But isn’t that just evidence-based reasoning? We all use the past to try to predict the future.

What makes momentum special is the extraordinarily high weight it puts on recent events. Again, this makes sense, up to a point. In trying to predict the result of the Super Bowl this weekend, we should clearly put more weight on the Patriot’s victory in the Conference Championship two weeks ago than on the team’s performance in 1974, which featured no players or coaches currently on the team. But how much more should we value the Conference Championship than the Patriots’ performance in week one of the regular season?

It seems to me that momentum isn’t really a unique idea, but a form of evidence-based reasoning that puts an especially high value on recent events. Therefore, a better question that “Is momentum real?” will be “How heavily should we weight recent events?” In most cases, I suspect momentum believers value recent events to a degree that can’t be justified.

Heads-up Limit Hold’em Solved

The University of Alberta’s Poker Research Group announced they have solved heads-up limit hold’em by creating an effectively unbeatable strategy.

What does this mean for poker players? Not much, at least in the short term. Heads-up limit hold’em had already largely died out. Heads-up (one-on-one) poker is generally not offered at all in casinos, and increasingly less popular online. Likewise, limit poker has largely given way to no limit or pot limit games. So heads-up limit hold’em is at this point a fairly obscure poker variant for human players.

Nonetheless, the achievement is a landmark for computer poker and has some interesting implications. I had been thinking recently about the question, why are computers better at chess than at poker? Arguably this new announcement calls into question whether that’s even the case, but I think it’s still safe to say that computers are indeed better at chess. Computers have been much better than the best human chess players for years now, while it is unclear if they are better than the best human players in many popular forms of poker.

I imagine many people’s first answer will be that poker rewards skills such as bluffing and reading opponents that computers are not good at. But in fact, computers bluff just fine, and while it is indeed difficult to teach a computer to read cues such as facial expressions, there is still no advantage there for a human adversary: the human can’t “read” the computer at all.

Maybe one reason computers have been bad at poker is that humans are so bad we don’t really know what to teach them. As with chess, computers are getting good at poker not by emulating humans, but by excelling in their own computer-y way. The Alberta team started with a program that bet completely at random, then re-evaluated its play and adjusted. Countless iterations of this process eventually produced an unbeatable strategy. In other words, they started with no preconceptions about how the machine “should” play. Poker is so strange and confusing that the best way to learn may turn out to be to teach computers to teach themselves so that they can teach us.

I’ve found that it is possible, more or less, to turn your brain into a chess machine. If you play and study enough you get to a point where the best moves often seem natural and obvious. This seems to be less true with poker. While experience will help you beat a human opponent (when you sense he’s uncomfortable, you raise), it may not help you much if you’re trying to play “optimal” poker, the kind you’ll need to beat a computer. In many cases, the best strategy involves mixing together different options. For example, maybe you bet 60% of the time and check 40%. This idea – that neither betting nor checking are right or wrong, but must be mixed in the right frequency to form an optimal strategy – is very difficult for humans to understand and implement.

The biggest reason that computers are better at chess is probably a boring one: people have been working on it for longer. Building a chess-playing machine was an early grail for computer programming, and many of computer science’s brightest lights worked on it at one time or another: Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, and many others. It is only much more recently that the same kind of attention has been paid to poker.

It’s natural to wonder if computers’ mastery of poker might eventually kill the game. This doesn’t seem to be happening in chess: if anything, computers have made chess more interesting for humans by improving analysis. But of course, in poker money is at stake, so there is more of a concern that players will use computers for a competitive advantage. My guess is that this will be a big problem in online poker, maybe eventually making it unviable, but won’t have much impact on live poker. Most people, it seems, play however they like, without much concern for theory.

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.


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