Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My Odd Pot Odds

My book got an online review from a guy in Massachusetts who thinks that I’m a nincompoop. Oh, okay, he didn’t use that exact word; other than saying that my odds are all wrong, my playing strategies are full of it, and that anybody who’s ever taken basic high school math should know better than to put out such garbage, he thinks my book is pretty good. I did get the impression that he isn’t a fan.
Well what does he expect from a bonafide pigeon?
Okay, I confess. I expected flak from my chapter on odds from the get-go, because every casino poker game I’ve ever played in is staffed with at least one math genius whose understanding of the game is so much deeper than mortal man’s that the guy can shoot down anyone’s theory on odds in a heartbeat. As a clod among clods I thought I should stick to the close-enough-for-government-work method of quoting odds, and that knowing that one shouldn’t draw to flushes without three-way action was sufficient without carrying probabilities out to the seventeenth digit.
After you’ve been socked between the eyes with a two-by-four as often as I have you learn that when one of said math prodigies holds court, your best course of action is to keep quiet, look dumb, and show respectful awe. Don’t argue. You ain’t gonna win. So I hereby flap my wings, hop down, and peck for popcorn on the floor as I defer to the Massachusetts guy. Even though he writes that I’m dumber’n a bag of hammers, he didn’t bother to elaborate on the correct method of figuring odds, so maybe if I beg hard enough he’ll do so. Hopefully I can stay awake and pay attention while he does.
But wait a minute!!! Not only has he dissed my odds-figuring, he’s also declared as moronic my exclusion of pre-flop money when deciding, after the flop, whether pot odds tell me to draw or not to draw. Pot odds gotta include the whole pot, he says, not just the action after the flop. Now the Massachusetts guy has gone too far, by golly. Now I gotta squawk, fly back up on the table, and defend.
Look. Up front. I don’t declare my system as the be-all and end-all, and knew full well before I wrote the book that the self-imagined sharpies of the poker world would pitch a hissy fit and set my fanny on the barbecue and pile on the coals. As I’ve said over and over, my teachings are often the direct opposite of what you’ll hear else-where. So you can try my theories out or simply read my stuff for a belly laugh at how dumb the author is, but if you’re one of the many who can’t seem to win at limit Hold ‘Em you might oughtta pay attention. Who knows? You might even turn things around.
I’ve played poker for more years than a lot of sharpies have been alive, and know full well that nine out of ten court-holders will tell you that, in estimating pot odds, you gotta count what’s already in there and not just what’s bet after the flop. If you’re playing ten and twenty limit, and five people have stood a pre-flop raise, that’s a hundred bucks already on the table, and before the first post-flop ten-dollar bet comes along, the pot is already laying you ten to one, right? Even the Ol’ Poker Pigeon is smart enough to figure that one out.
But even though I can multiply five times twenty bucks (and even do the math in my head, by God), I don’t play the way that most sharpies recommend. Here’s why. In a multi-hour playing session you are going to see a number of flops, and depending on how tight or loose the game is, you are also going to call a pre-flop raise in a certain percentage of those hands where five or more players are going to tag along. If your pockets are both hearts and two more hearts appear on the flop, you have an 18 in 47 chance of making your hand either on the turn or on the river (and here the sharpies will scream indignantly that the true odds are .3504 or 35.04%—they get this, sort of, by computing the odds with two to come and the odds with one to come and then striking a median between the two—but hey, I only said I could add, subtract and multiply; long division ain’t in my wheelhouse), meaning that with three players, including you, going on to the river, the sharpies are gonna figure pot odds at 10 to 1 pre-flop money plus 3 to one post-flop plus another 3 to 1 on the betting after the turn (and these are known as implied odds, but now you’re giving the Ol’ Pigeon a headache with all the figuring), and, baby, those sharpies are gonna draw. Well, hey, so am I. I don’t count the pre-flop money, and I think implied odds are like implied invitations to sex in that a whole lotta times the babe doesn’t follow through on what you think she’s implying. But an 18 in 47 chance of making my hand is less than two to 1 against, and with two other players in the pot I’m gonna draw just like the sharpies are. We are all definitely on the same page there, okay?
Where we’re different is when after the flop you find yourself in a head-up situation. The sharps are gonna figure the 10 to 1 pre-flop money along with the 1 to 1 action after the flop, and the sharp is gonna draw. The Pigeon, figuring that 1 to 1 money is less than the 18 in 47 chance of making the hand, is gonna throw the hand away. And I’m willing to concede that the sharpies might be right here and I might be wrong—but only where you’re talking a straight or flush draw, and I believe that any successful method must be based on computing the pot odds in the same manner every single time.
My point: what about where you’re holding AK and the flop produces 8, 9, 10 with two clubs? Here the sharps are going to figure themselves for six wins (three aces and three kings) left in the deck, the pot odds just as in the preceding paragraph and are going to draw away. I’m not. For one thing, by my post-flop-only calculations the pot odds aren’t strong enough. For another, even if I catch an ace or king, that hand is most likely not going to win. In this situation someone else is almost certain to have a flush draw, thus eliminating the ace and king of clubs from my equation, plus with 8, 9, 10 on the board someone’s got a straight draw if they don’t already have a straight, and catching an ace or king will very likely make one of my opponents two pair. I draw for straights and flushes because I’m confident that if I hit my hand I’ll win (and yeah, sometimes I’ll hit my flush and someone will make a bigger flush, but that happening is so rare that I don’t worry about it until I see it). I don’t draw for any hand that I have no confidence in being the best hand at the end.
This situation gets even more bizarre where you have suited cards and only one card of your suit hits the board on the flop. Or where the flop misses you entirely and you’re holding undercards (you have 6-7, the flop is AJ9) but you figure you could win with two running sixes, two running sevens, or a six and a seven. How ‘bout then, huh? In fact, if you count pre-flop money in calculating pot odds, often those odds get so high that even good players will see the turn card no matter what their pockets happen to be in relation to the board. If them odds get high enough, baby, you’re supposed to draw.
The lamebrained Ol’ Pigeon here counts the pre-flop money as his entry fee to the post-flop play, and only computes his pot odds based on the post-flop bets, because I believe that counting the entire pot rather than just the current odds (the pot odds on this bet, and this bet alone versus the number of players that are gonna call this bet, right now) creates draws that are simply absurd. In a multi-player pot (five or more), I want either the best hand, or a one-card draw to a hand that I’m confident is going to win. And yes, two-card draws knock me out often enough to make me want to throw up on the table, but I’m not going to draw at those hands and never will. We’re playing Hold ‘Em here. Racehorse and First-One-Over-Wins players are gonna come out on the short end in the long run, and them’s my sentiments.
So there.

The Poker Pigeon is the pseudonym for the pro-level player who wrote Play Poker Like a Pigeon (And Take the Money Home), currently in bookstores. He will welcome your comments pro and con at pigeon3450@yahoo.com.

Flack for the Internet

Barney Flack may not be a poker player, but the Massachusetts Democrat sure knows that a whole bunch of his voters are. In case you’ve been asleep or tied up in an online Hold ‘Em game without a newspaper for the past few weeks, Flack, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, became internet poker’s go-to guy by introducing a bill in Congress that could put the offshore card rooms back in business in the good old U.S. of A. Flack’s announcement came just months after the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 for all practical purposes shut down cyberspace gaming nationwide by making it a federal crime for financial institutions to move money from U.S. accounts into online casino coffers. Some internet gambling joints have already found ways to circumvent the law by creating money transfers that banks and credit card computers don’t recognize as illegal offshore casino transactions, but identifying and closing these loopholes is a pretty simple matter once the law identifies parties using them—and look for the feds to prove they mean business by putting someone’s fanny in jail. May as well face it; the feds have made buying chips enough of a pain so that internet poker is just about history in the U.S. until there’s a change in the law.
Flack’s new bill, the Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act of 2007, if passed through the House and Senate and signed into law, would restore U.S. financial institutions’ ability to deposit customers’ funds with offshore casinos if (oh, yeah, that nasty word) the casino is licensed to do business in the country where it’s located, and if the form of internet gambling going on is legal in the state where the U.S. player lives. There are some other conditions having to do with gambling addicts and minors, and authorized internet casinos have to submit to tax collectors and internet gaming regulators and whatnot, but basically our man Barney is puttin’ us back in action, baby. All you online pros out there, just tell the landlord to be patient for another month, and before he knows it you’re gonna catch up on the rent and even pay some in advance. And as for you players not living in the USA, the action will be fast and furious once again before you know it.
But hold it there, dealer. Don’t move that button just yet. The Poker Pigeon has slapped a bridle and bit on Barney’s gift horse and looked it right in the mouth. And you know what? Those teeth in there are long as hell.
U.S. participation in internet poker is a very big deal for online card rooms and non-U.S. players alike. Televised poker depends on advertisers such as Bodog, PartyPoker, Paradise Poker, etc., etc., and since most televised poker on ESPN and FSN originates in the U.S., without Yanks playing online the sponsors have no incentive to keep the advertising dollars rolling in. Ninety percent of the thousands of WSOP Main Event participants that have popped up in recent years win their seats in online satellites; in fact, without USA players taking seats in cyberspace, you can look for televised poker as we know it to pretty much go away, and for the WSOP to shrink down to just about what it used to be prior to table cams. So hey, before we all get caught up in the euphoria of being back in action once Barney Flack throws the switch, it’s a good idea to take a close look at Barney’s internet gambling bill and what it really means to us.
First of all, please know that playing poker over the internet is not, never has been, and never will be a violation of U.S. federal law, either for the players or the cyber-space card rooms involved. There is no federal law against any form of gambling, online or otherwise, because legalization of gambling falls under the heading of states’ rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The only federal criminal statutes dealing with gambling originally were enacted as federal aids to state law enforcement; it’s a federal crime, for example, to use an interstate communications device (and the law has ex-panded the definition in recent years to include computers as well as telephones) to transmit gambling information, and this is the hammer the FBI has used in busting illegal bookies for decades. Early on in the battle against internet gambling U.S. Attorneys charged violations of the interstate communications device statute, but since the online casinos were located outside U.S. jurisdiction, federal prosecutors could indict to their hearts’ content but couldn’t extradite any of the offenders, so federal opposition to internet gambling was a toothless proposition. Not any longer. Congress has now hit online card rooms in the only spot where they’re vulnerable, in the pocketbook.
U.S. online poker players and offshore card rooms are counting heavily on the newly proposed legislation to restore cyberspace poker, but here’s the rub: even if the Flack-sponsored bill becomes law, online casinos still have to meet individual states’ requirements before they can get up and running. In the past, even though online casinos operated in clear violation of state law, the states left enforcement of international gaming to the feds and kept their noses out of it. But now here comes a law requiring internet casinos, in order to operate inside the U.S., to be in compliance with state statutes regarding gambling, and if you don’t think that federal enforcement of state regulation creates a boondoggle of conflict . . .
Take Nevada, the recognized Mecca of legalized gambling. All forms of gambling conducted over the internet, including poker, are legal in Nevada provided that the operators hold Nevada gaming permits and pay state taxes on profits reaped in Nevada. There are state-enforced bankroll requirements for permit holders; there is an initial minimum that buys you a sports-book-only permit, but if you add slots and table games there is an additional bankroll required for each machine or table that you put in play. If you play Blackjack and poker in your casino you need an extra two grand in the bank for each and every table; if Caesar’s Palace adds a hundred Blackjack tables, first they have to show the State of Nevada a couple of hundred grand. The same requirement currently exists for poker, though that figure could be increased or reduced at legislative whim.
So how do online casinos comply with Nevada regs? The answer is that they probably can’t. Since every time an online player decides on a little Blackjack he sits alone across from a single dealer, Nevada could argue that the online operator needs two grand additional for each and every player who sits in on a Blackjack game. The casino, on the other hand, could take the position that, hey, there ain’t no tables, not a single one, because all this stuff happens on a computer monitor. The same size-of-bankroll problem also exists in poker; as the game fills up, new tables magically appear to start more games and furnish more seats for the players. So is there a happy median, a meeting of the minds where Nevada and the online card rooms could agree on a bankroll requirement? Maybe, but the Poker Pigeon isn’t betting on it.
And let’s be real; offshore casino operators didn’t build all those villas and buy all those jets by cowtowing to U.S. regulators. Nope, they all got rich because of the lack of rules that apply to them, and are these same guys going to pay U.S. and Nevada taxes plus furnishing detailed financial statements to both entities just in order to keep taking U.S. action? Puh-lease. And Nevada’s just one state, folks. Imagine the mess when the thirty-six other legalized poker states stick their oars in the water. Rep. Flack’s committee has a meeting scheduled in June to decide how to proceed in bringing the bill before the House—you know, one of those lovely government goings-on where they hold a meeting to decide when to have another meeting. With the wrinkles existent in the current proposal, look for these meetings to still be going on ten years from now.
So is there a faster solution? Well, the Poker Pigeon’s legal staff has come up with one that I’ll lay out for you in my next little column. Meanwhile, spend your time keeping up with Barney Flack and his bill, which you’ll have plenty of time for doing while not playing poker over the internet, but never get the idea that a return to internet poker riches is only a House vote—or click—away.

The Poker Pigeon is a pseudonym for the anonymous pro level poker player who wrote Play Poker Like a Pigeon (And Take the Money Home), currently on bookstore shelves, and The Education of a Poker Pigeon, coming soon to a bookstore near you. He will welcome your comments at pigeon3450@yahoo.com.

Ladies as Suckers

You’ve overheard it in or near poker rooms when they thought you weren’t listening, though most of this dialogue goes on in the Men’s, as the guys assume the position in front of the urinal and expose what’s left of their manhood: “She didn’t have no business even bein’ in the pot with them pocket cards,” or, “That woman’s been dumb-lucky for a long time, but it ain’t always gonna be that way.” Each of these complainers has just lost his money to (gasp!) a woman. According to the moaner, can’t no woman so much as spell poker, much less play it, and if the woman who just took his bankroll will keep on playin’, he’s gonna own her.
And that’s why, ladies, you’ve got ‘em right where you want ‘em; no matter how skilled you get as a player or how much you win, there will still be plenty of bonehead guys who won’t give your game respect merely because of your gender. The truth is that in more decades than I care to admit of drifting from game to game around the country, I have played with quite a few women (many more in recent years than in the old days), and I gotta share with you what I’ve observed: Overall, women are better poker players than men, hands down, and even female novices have the potential to be head and shoulders better than the guys who play at the same level.
And yeah, that’s what I said, and if speaking my mind gets me kicked out of the Good Ol’ Boys Society, so be it. The primo qualities you look for in a new player with top-flight potential are (1) temperament and (2) patience, and women have so much more of both than men that it isn’t even a contest. Guys, loaded down with testosterone and eaten up with the Mine’s-Bigger’n-Yours Syndrome, go on tilt more easily than women do, and waste tons of money trying to beat players they’ve taken dead aim on. Ladies don’t exhibit the same nonsense; bad beats don’t normally send them racing off to Cuckooville, and the fact that a certain player beats them a few pots doesn’t transform their game into a no-brain grudge match. It would tickle me to death to help players with high-end potential develop their talents, and to give even the expert female players a little food for thought that might improve their games even more.
If your purpose in playing poker is to win money, you need to accomplish two separate goals. The first is to become the best player you can possibly be through study, through game experience, through whatever means it takes. That you gotta become a good player in order to win consistently goes without saying, of course, but here’s the rub: being a good poker player is the easiest part. The toughest goal to reach in order to become a consistent cash-game winner is what we’re going to talk about here.
Wait a minute, you say, everyone that plays poker wants to win. Well . . .
The above statement should be changed to say that everyone who plays poker tells people that they want to win, though in the poker craze that’s exploded around us during the past few years, more often than not beginning poker players are merely fad-followers just like the folks in the 1950s who bought hula hoops that in just a few short weeks would sit unnoticed in their garages. Their real purpose in taking up poker isn’t clear to most novices, even to themselves, though their sudden interest in the game has something to do with faint hope of becoming a WSOP television star, and to be on a first-name basis with Phil, Doyle, Cindy, Annie, and all of them. They dream of the moment when they can say, “All in,” and then turn their steely-eyed gaze on the camera while they wait for their opponents to act on their hands, and after the game’s over give interviews to people like Norman Chad on ESPN. Not that there’s anything wrong with those ambitions, and if public stardom is what you want, then you should stop reading, right now, and hire a publicist, because I’m not your guy.
In the coming months we’re going to examine ways for ladies to take advantage of their inborn talents, while at the same time they hide their superiority from men who will go on believing that women are suckers at the poker table, and will continue to cuss women’s dumb luck as they stand, broke once again, in front of the urinal in the Men’s. It’s gonna be a fun ride, ladies, and I’ll sure be thrilled if you tag along.

The Poker Pigeon is the pseudonym for the anonymous pro-level player who wrote PLAY POKER LIKE A PIGEON (AND TAKE THE MONEY HOME) now on the bookstore shelves, and THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PIGEON, coming soon to your local bookstore. He will welcome your comments at pigeon3450@yahoo.com.