Wednesday, November 09, 2005

New blog?

Because I don't live in Chile any longer, I'm going to change the Web address and name of this blog to The Surly Poker Gnome, which should be available at
See you there!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

In the Zone

If it's possible to be in that magical fun happy place that sports stars refer to as "The Zone," then I think I'm there. Except for that in poker, we tend to use the more humble term of "running good" because of the random nature of the cards.

Fine then. I'm running good. I keep getting pocket Kings with no Aces on the flop. I'll suck out on you any day, and you'll like it. When I have second pair vs. your top pair, I'll check-raise you and you'll fold. Or I'll hit two pair on the turn. Which way would you like it?

It was like tonight at the new Emory game. I lost about $200 in the first half hour, but then I rebought and ended up cashing out a profit of about $200. Near the end of the night, a few people at my table were complaining because I was taking down a lot of pots that never got close to showdown. (I wish they had gotten to showdown -- I had some monster hands.) I raised from middle position with pocket 8s. This guy known as Pipsqueek looked at me and asked whether I wanted him to call or fold.

"I don't care what you do. It's money for me either way," I said.

He folded. So did everyone else. I'll take it.

Here's the question: How long can this last? How long can I live the dream of three big bets per 100 hands?

I haven't even played $15/$30 again because I'm irrationally worried that this run is going to come to a crashing halt. Then again, maybe the real reason I haven't played $15/$30 again is that I don't feel up to it for whatever reason (tired, half-drunk, etc.).

Like online poker itself, this good run can't last forever. Or can it?

Sunday, November 06, 2005


I got the call at about 9:45 p.m. last night. I was eating Chinese and watching Ultimate Fighting at Drew's.

My dad was on the line. He told me he and my mom had been locked out of the house, and they needed me to come home and let them in.

No problem, I thought. But the fish are going to have to pay.

The circumstances were right. It was a Saturday night. The cards have been running extremely well. I wasn't tired.

I decided I would take a shot at $15/$30 if the tables were good enough.

And let me tell you, they were good enough! I jumped ahead early with some routine hands -- check-raise top pair, turn two pair kind of hands. Then I lost small amounts on some second-best hands. The river brought a two pair to me but a flush to my opponent. A pocket pair of 8s lost to a pair of Jacks on the river.

But I still felt good. I was able to steal a few pots before the two magic hands both came at the same time.

First I limped with A2 from late position. Three people saw a flop with two cards of my suit. Early position bet, middle position called, I raised. Early position three-bet, middle position folded, I capped. Turn brought a blank. Bet and called. River brought my flush. Bet, raise, call. Big pot vs. a flopped set.

The biggest hand was going on at another table. I held 98 offsuit from the big blind in a big multiway pot. Flop brought a gut shot. Turn brought a double belly-buster. River filled me in with a highly unlikely third nut straight. I check-raised the field on the river, but then I got three bet! Fuck. I'm screwed. But I automatically called because the pot was enormous. The raiser turned over another flopped set, and I collected.

Shortly afterward, the tables dried up. I got tired and went to sleep, waiting until this morning to check my results.

I woke up this morning and went straight to PokerTracker. There was the verdict: $1,033 profits in a 1.5-hour Saturday night session. My first $1,000 day! The most money I've ever made in a day. And I did it by playing a computer game in my parents' basement.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


A few years ago, I played in a few Magic: The Gathering tournaments in the Atlanta area. They were always fun because you could test your best deck against anyone else's, and it wasn't expensive to enter.

In Magic, each card has a different ability, so your goal was to combine about 60 cards (out of the thousands available) into a deck that worked. But that wasn't enough to win a tournament. You had to consider the metagame -- the game inside the game. You had to use a deck that would work well against the popular decks of the time. You had to construct a 15-card sideboard that had specific defenses against certain kinds of decks (Protection from Red, for example).

When it comes to poker, game theory and metagame tactics are pretty closely related. Game theory advocates changing your tactics to create an overall better strategy that will presumably win you more money. The metagame adjustments are simply the implementation of that strategy.

The most obvious example is when using in-game data to tailor your decisions to specific opponents. If someone only goes to showdown 15 percent of the time, it makes sense to bluff at him at every opportunity. Most of the time, he will fold. If someone is overly aggressive, you should respond with aggression when you have an edge. If an opponent is a calling station, do not try to bluff him. When against a very loose player preflop, loosen up your calling standards as well. When a super-tight player raises from early position, go ahead and fold hands like AT suited unless there are other reasons to play.

You want to present your strongest game to each of your opponents. When you bluff, you want to make the bluff look real. A ridiculous overbet often is not a good bluff because it's too obvious. Suspicious overbets always look like bluffs -- and sometimes that's exactly what you want.

Matt Matros wrote a column in Card Player discussing how to apply game theory in a no limit hold 'em situation. Here's the question: if you flop a draw with overcards on a paired board, how do you want to play? Do you want to represent the three of a kind? Do you want to bluff? Do you want to simply play your draw? Ideally, you want to accomplish all of these goals at once while maximizing your expectation.

The components of game theory and metagaming break down into many familiar sub-categories, such as game selection, bluff frequency, changing gears, inflection points, flop texture and value bets.

You can call it whatever you want, but each of these tactics are meant to be weighted together to find an answer to the question, "How should I play good poker?"

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Book Review: "The Making of a Poker Player"

The main flaw of "The Making of a Poker Player," by Matt Matros, is that it's written for beginners. It was overhyped as a book focusing on game theory and skill development, but instead all it offers is a narrative of one man's climb up the ladder.

I suppose there's nothing inherently wrong with that. The reader can follow along with Matros as he plays home games while in grad school, visits Atlantic City and eventually finished third place in a World Poker Tour event.

Along the way, Matros explains the rules of hold 'em and passes along antidotes about what it feels like to learn the game, step by step.

I'm sure basic information about how to play pot limit Omaha is useful for some people out there. I'm sure the story of a guy who got lucky in the World Poker Tour is just fascinating for tournament junkies. I'm sure someone out there needs to use the glossary to find out what "no limit" means.

But that ain't me. I feel like the marketing for this book was deceptive, and the strategic content to be severely lacking.

This was billed as a book largely dealing with game theory. Instead, we get one chapter on it. And this chapter isn't even useful. It's 13 pages that mentions some of game theory's fundamentals, but it offers almost no practical information on what should be an important concept. I wrote about this topic a few days ago in this post.

It also really bothered me that the chapter dealing with Internet poker was so bad. This book was only released a month or two ago, and the information sounds like it came from 2002. While the content seems dated, the more severe problem is that it lacks insight. A good poker book for beginners would also offer something for more advanced players.

Furthermore, Matros gets his facts wrong. He says PokerTracker costs $40, but it's been $55 for at least a year now. He makes reference to a program called PokerStat (which I'm not familiar with), without even mentioning Poker Office. He says PokerStars, Party Poker, Ultimate Bet and Paradise Poker make up the "Big Four" poker sites. In reality, PokerRoom, the Prima Network and Pacific Poker are also right up there in terms of size, according to

Early on in the book, Matros spends some time blabbering on about how easy limit poker is compared to no limit hold 'em. I'll say this: I welcome any no limit player at any table I play at stakes up to $15/$30. Limit is harder to play and to learn than no limit, and authors like Ed Miller have made the same claim.

At one point, Matros says he's never seen a tight $3/$6 limit game. That shows how much he knows about online poker, where $3/$6 is a difficult and important stepping stone where many decent players fail.

I'm trying not to be too hard on the book, because it isn't that bad. The writing is somewhat engaging, and the story is mildly interesting. But this is not a book for me or for any poker player I know. It's too much like "Poker for Dummies."

Here's the link to the CardPlayer book review.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Emory Game Resurrected

Just before I departed Atlanta for Santiago, Chile, I made a big score the last time I ever attended the Thursday night Emory game. I forced a friend of mine out of a big pot by pushing with pocket Queens to beat a lesser hand (I later learned my friend had a straight but was scared of the flush). Then on my very last hand, I hit it big with some suited connectors.

A few months later, I heard that the Emory game had died out, for whatever reason.

But now, it's back, baby!

It's now hosted by new people, but many of the faces at the game are the same. There's a strong contingent of clueless college kids, as well as a few crazy rounders who like to pretend that they're playing solid poker. My favorite one is a guy that Daniel dubbed "Random Hand," because he plays just about any two cards.

I love this game because it's loose, and the personalities make it a good time. There's lots of table talk and plenty of university students who like to think they know what they're doing -- until I bust them, at least. The game is $2/$3 no limit with a $300 max buyin.

Tonight I got lucky and was dealt plenty of good cards. I had pocket Kings three times, and they took down medium-size pots every time.

Another medium pot was won when I flopped two pair with KJ. In retrospect, I believe I played the hand too passively against Random Hand. He kept betting and I kept calling. I figured this was a decent strategy against his likely longshot draw or weak top pair. As long as he kept betting away, I would make money. Unfortunately, he checked and folded the river. I think I should have raised him on the flop, but then again, he may have simply folded at that point. Maybe I won the maximum on the hand. Who knows how Random Hand may choose to play?

There were a few other great hands through the night. The most memorable was when one guy was drawing dead except to a runner-runner straight. He made his perfect cards on the turn and the river to take down a huge pot.

I feel OK about my play. I was much more upbeat this session than I was last week, which I believe helps encourage action and generates a positive table image. I found myself wondering if I was getting too much respect at the table, but then again, I did get callers any time they had any pair or any draw. The only times they folded was when it was pretty damn clear I had them beat. I showed down winners repeatedly. A couple of bluffing opportunities were successful for small pots. I also feel like my reading skills are pretty good.

On the downside, I worry when I give off tells that I can't control. I guess I need more routine live-game practice to avoid the shaky hand tell, which almost always indicates a strong hand. I know it's elementary, and I feel like a tool for giving off that tell. I'll just have to work on it. In the meantime, I'll have to keep scaring people with my false tells.

At one point, the action was on Random Hand. He reached for some chips and was about to bet. But then he looked in my eyes, and I allowed myself a very small smile at the right corner of my lips. He checked. I bet. He folded.

"I know what that smile means," Random Hand said. "I've been seeing it all night."

That's right, Random Hand. You know me.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Game Theory

I'm reading Matt Matros' new book, "The Making of a Poker Player," which deals with many poker ideas, including a short section on game theory. I'll probably post a review of the book when I finish it. So far I've found it to be lacking, but I won't make a final judgment until it's finished.

The crux of game theory is that you should consider how to have a solid game overall, rather than making every individual decision based on rote tactics. Game theory recommends concepts like randomly bluffing at predetermined percentages of the time based on the second-hand of your watch, or mixing up your game in order to set up future plays.

The more complicated explanation of game theory is that if you make the optimal play, you don't care whether your opponent calls or folds. That's because you're trying to make a bet based on the value of your hand that your opponent cannot counter.

Game theory predicts that there is a mathematically "optimal" move at all points in the hand, and that by learning some complicated math-based rules, you can become unbeatable.

Sure. To some extent that's true.

My complaint is that the game theorist wants a perfect answer at all times, and I have a hard time believing that there is such a thing as a grand universal theory of poker. Steven Hawking isn't going to wake up one day and present a master formula for playing like God would.

In my opinion, a lot of the same solutions that game theory recommends can also be reached by playing solid poker -- especially when it comes to reading the texture of the flop and evaluating the value of all possible hands.

The most important and useful aspect of game theory to me is that it suggests constantly mixing up and evaluating your game. Attention to exactly how you play poker, both at the table or behind a book, is how people improve their games and become better poker players. There are very few automatic answers (side note: I can think of one automatic answer. When you raise preflop in limit hold 'em and get one early position caller who checks to you on the flop, always bet). Every answer should be considered depending on the specific situation at hand, depending on many factors. Often, the correct answer is not the obvious one.

A game theory expert can tell me that the math says minimum raises in no limit hold 'em make sense. A game theory expert can tell me that preflop calling makes more sense than frequent raising (like this numbers-based article implies). Normally, I would claim you can't argue with the numbers.

But as a poker player, I am certain that bigger bets and isolation raises are more than a little important. When it comes to these kinds of minute details about the game, I believe the game theorists are absolutely wrong.