Read anything good lately?

March 29, 2009

In my gaming circles, I often hear a commonly spoken phrase regarding bluffing and the ability to read a person at the table. And to paraphrase, it sounds something like “you can’t learn it, you’re just born with it.”  Or more accurately, “I’m just born with it.” Nothing like a little self-appreciation at the casino.

Is that true, though? Is the ability to read another person in the genes, or can it be learned and taught like the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em? The answer might not be what you were thinking.

My answer, for the record, is that it requires a bit of both. It helps, of course, to be born with the unique talent to accurately pinpoint what someone’s intentions are, or whether they’re lying, simply by observing their face, body and tendancies. The skill goes much further than calling out a bad bluff in a game of cards. Detectives use it during a homicide case, many use to their advantage in work environments…there are dozens of different scenarios.

I can remember an instance recently where I was sitting in a colleague’s office, and we were discussing something important to the daily workflow. It was a casual conversation but with serious aspects. I tested myself throughout the meeting, not to call out a bluff or a lie, but simply to observe the different facial emotions as paired with the different outward moods he was offering. And I was reminded what many of you already might know, as well. The real tell is in the eyes. In a split-second, the change in mood from serious to light humor was revealed in the eyes. It’s difficult to convey in words a more detailed description of what this change appears as…and that alone is one of the reasons it’s impossible to completely teach the trait of reading people without some “born-with” basis to spot these things when they occur.

All other things equal (no facial movement, no development of sweat, no body twitches, no speech, no hesitation on decision), a true expert can still decipher what you’re thinking and what your mood is just by watching your eyes.

So don’t laugh next time you see someone at the World Series of Poker wearing thick Moneymaker sunglasses with or without the company of a full-mouth scarf. The fans blowing sweat away, the large-rimmed hats, the quiet tones, none are as valuable to someone trying to conceal their intentions than a good pair of black-out sunglasses.

What can be taught, then? To discipline yourself in how you reveal (or don’t reveal) that you’re actively trying to read someone. How to look for more obvious physical tells, and when to expect them. Both of these things can be taught and, through practice, mastered. I don’t want to over dramatize and sound like we’re talking about Neo in the Matrix here, but even the deeper talents of reading someone’s eyes need to be harnessed and controlled.

If I had to pin it down to a percentage, I’d say mastering the art of successfully calling out a bluff is 70 percent natural ability, and 30 percent education. So, if you’re trying to improve your skills here, don’t shy away from studying the experts, reading books and practicing religiously until you build your confidence. If it’s something that you enjoy doing, the studying and practicing won’t seem like work at all. And on the other end, you’ll add a valuable weapon to your poker arsenal.

You can have all the control in the world, the greatest run of cards, the most disciplined betting plan and a heap of luck on your side, but there’ll come that moment when your gut is ferociously disagreeing with your logic, and that’s when you need to step outside your own head and try to get inside your opponent’s.

That’s the moment, when there’s a $500 bet on the table and you’re straining yourself not to show your heart beating through your shirt, where you’ll need to draw on your talent to read someone else to make the call for you.

The blinds

March 22, 2009

I love the blinds. Not my living room blinds; those things are getting cracked, bent and falling out faster than a candy addicts molars. I’m talking about the poker blinds, but of course. In the impatient player’s world, the blinds are a priceless friend.

That’s not to say I’m an impatient player, it more or less depends on the situation I’m in. If I’m out for the night at a friends’ house, a few hours into the game, up $100, plenty of alcohol, soda and food to go around, ESPN quietly flickering off in the corner somewhere…hey, I’m as content as can be. But if I’m down $100, need to be home to take my shift with the baby by 2 a.m., and it’s winding into the 1 a.m. hour, the food is stale, the alcohol and its affects are gone, the soda’s flat and the channel formerly showing ESPN somehow went to static…yeah, that tends to try my patience a bit.

So bring on the blinds. I know some people don’t like the idea of having to put money into the middle when others’ can choose to drop a garbage hand without losing anything up front, depending on whose turn it is. I can handle that, it’s part of the game, the same way the low up-card in a casino game of seven-card stud poker tags you as the one who has to make the initial bet to the table. Those are the rules, if you don’t like it, stay out of the tournaments and/or find a home game that’s cash-only and ante’s are standard.

There’s really nothing more annoying, though, than playing in a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament, working your way through the evening, eliminating a player here, avoiding being on the receiving end of a major all-in battle there, still being standing with a chip count you can barely see over, and then being forced to nickel and dime it out with stingy Sam across from you whose just as content to wait for the big hand to even put anything large into play.

Drives me crazy. It’s not the wrong strategy, unless you’re worried at that point about becoming too predictable and giving up the bluff. But even in that situation, it’s a tough call if you know your opponent is skilled enough to consciously bet to the power of his hand 50 times in a row and then throw you a curveball on No. 51. Either way, if he’s staring down a major chip disadvantage, and it’s winner-take-all regardless, what exactly does he have to lose?

Nothing, and that’s why you gotta increase the blinds. Every 10 minutes, every 30 minutes, doesn’t matter. As long as the players know in the back of their head, they can’t sit back and wait for the perfect situation. There has to be a little pressure to act, even for the most patient of poker players out there. It keeps the game interesting, keeps the action moving, and more importantly, keeps the money from staying in one place for too long.

I remember back in college, we’re talking 10 good years ago at least, we would conduct basement poker tournaments. Everyone would buy in for $10, there’d be 10, maybe 12 people…sometimes when we had enough we’d start with 2 tables of 6 or 7, and the top 3 from each table would combine to form the final table of 6. Anyway, I held my own every time one of these came together. I think I outright won a couple, lost at the final table once, but was always in the hunt. The biggest tournament I can remember involved 16 people, and it came down to me and one other kid. There’s some history here, too, since I was (am) a couple years older than him. Back when he was rushing our fraternity house, we got a game together over a big party weekend. He was pretty arrogant, and honestly just didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Funny how, even before poker was popular, there were people out there who thought they were better than they really were just because they ruled their high school weekend group. Of course, I used to be the same way, so who am I to judge.

Anyway, we took him for about $30 that night, with slick smiles on our faces, and he never forgot it…and, as it would seem, he held me mostly accountable since I won the most money that night. We were friends, it wasn’t animosity or anything, but he still would’ve loved the chance to get back at me in cards.

So we went back and forth, I had a huge chip lead (80/20 or a very similar split). The bets remained the same, though, our big rule mistake. So neither of us would give. I had no reason to try my luck given my position, and he was intent on pushing my buttons until I made a wrong decision, which he intended to capitalize on.

Well, that wasn’t going to happen, so we hit a major stalemate, and for literally the next hour sat through a tedious, exhausting back and forth with very little money changing hands. Eventually, we both gave in and just split the final pot 80/20 (other players gave us a little justified grief for making this decision ourselves without input from other players).

So I won some money, but what I really took from that experience is that you have to – HAVE TO – increase the blinds as certain time intervals. As much as I love poker, I need that action to keep moving. Take me to the next game, a different poker game, a new chance to win…the same stale game running in circles is not how poker was meant to be played.

Control yourself

March 15, 2009

 I was thinking recently about how if I had to boil it down to one thing, the definitive reason I love playing poker above all other casino games or methods of gambling is simply because of control. That one little thing, of which the need and satisfaction can seem to trascend every aspect of human existence, is solely what brings fullfillment to my time at the table. I could win or lose, learn a lesson or completely forget the night under a haze of alcohol and stale Cheetos, but if I know at the end of the night that the decisions I made were in as much of my control as possible, I’m at peace with my time.

What exactly do I mean? How is poker so far above and beyond anything else in terms of control? Both good questions, and I’ll answer them at the same time. First, let’s look at the game of poker itself, then we’ll move on to it’s companions in the world of gambling.

In poker, you can control just about everything. Not which cards you receive, of course, but depending on which variation of poker, how many you decide to keep, discard or exchange are all at your determination. How much you bet (after a set blind amount) is at your discretion. And if you’re not the big or small blind, going in at all is your call. If you’re talented enough, how much emotion you decide to convey in your facial expressions and physical ticks and movements is under your control, as well.

Ultimately, though, and most important, is that when push comes to shove, you’re the one who chooses to throw chips in the middle or make the bold move of dumping your cards into the fold pile on the table. Like toppling your king in a chess game, knowing when to fold – and acting on it – makes a larger impact on a game than anything else. Hmm…maybe not like toppling your king in chess…maybe more like knowing when to pit in a NASACAR race. Yeah, there you go!

In sports gambling, you have control of what game you choose, and, as in all forms of gambling, how much you want to wager, but that’s about where the control ends. I love sports and I’ve recently discovered a newfound love with the details of sports gambling, but the bottom line is the ultimate outcome isn’t in your hands, it’s in someone else’s hands, while you sit and watch and clutch your horseracing tickets (for example) hoping for a winner. Also, the sports lines are out of your control, as well, unless you’re Ace Rothstein, which you’re not, because the guy who he was based on has died.

In roulette, you control how much you bet, how much your split your bets, and how much you initially buy-in for, but that’s it. You don’t get to spin the ball (not that you’d know how to do it anyway), you don’t get to blow on the wheel…you have no say in where the ball lands. Of course, that’s the point of the game, but it cripples your ability to control much outside of the money itself.

Blackjack gives you a good amount of control, but limited betting options once the game is in play. You can double to bring more money onto the table. To be fair, in terms of decisions on cards during the game, blackjack holds its own, possibly even surpassing poker, but the lack of gambling options and the inability of reading players or emotions as they pertain to other players coming into play hurts the overall package of control.

Slots? Nickels or quarters…and I suppose a plastic coin collecting bin or a shopping bag. There’s your control.

Video poker? Not a fan. Strips away most of what makes poker interesting and leaves you there hoping an electronic screen will pop up enough hearts for you to win your dollar back. Not much control here, either.

So there you have it. Indisputable evidence :)

Don’t agree? Get control of yourself!

Let’s help the economy…and play poker!

March 8, 2009

Every once in a while, the prospect of legalizing something illegal – or mostly illegal in many parts of the country – pops up with big numbers accompanying the initiative to illustrate how much money the government could raise if it would just “be cool.” Recently, we saw this in California with the legalization of marijuana, and how the regulating of it by the state could bring in huge sums of money to help them out of their incredible financial crisis.

Well now, a new analysis found our country could rake in about $52 billion by 2019 if online gambling were regulated, as has ben proposed in new federal legislation. “A missed opportunity,” it’s being declared.

As if politicians weren’t hypocritical enough when the stock market is heading straight down the tubes. But aside from the fact that these same politicians would probably condemn the practice of gambling in its entirety if the circumstances were different, and we were back in an election year, the current point they make is valid.

In fact, the analysis also showed that despite numerous attempts to prohibit gambling online across the country, the numbers have only increased and will continue to increase. That’ll team ‘em to try and cut out our fun!

Seriously, though, the online gambling ban is a failure. It was doomed to fail from the beginning. It was like trying to put a cap on Internet porn, or mp3 torrent downloading People who want to do these things or see these things will continue to do it regardless of the law if they know there’s an incredibly slim chance of them getting caught.

And I for one say make the change. I can understand not wanting to legalize gambling, including poker rooms, in actual cities or states. Down here in Florida, there are “arcades” where you can essential gamble (poker, slots, etc…) and win gift cards to stores. The windows are covered in black, you see plumes of smoke coming out of the places…they just emit shadiness. Having casinos will undoubtedly draw certain people to them, and probably draw businesses that cater to similar clientele. I’m trying hard not to stereotype here, but it’s a fact. Less than desirables find their ways to casinos.

But Internet gambling? What’s the harm? People do it all the time in home poker games. There are major U.S. cities dedicated to taking your money through gambling. Why not just let people do whatever they want within the four walls of their own home? Who does that hurt?

Nobody, except probably religious fundamentalists, and hard-line conservative politicians…who are catering to religious fundamentalists.

I love poker, and from time to time I definitely get the urge to jump online and hit up a Texas Hold ‘em tournament, just to see how I’ll do. Sometimes I’ll head on over to a free site and play just to hone my skills…and I HATE playing for free in live games. I never do it. But playing online is different.

There’s something about playing online for free that doesn’t seem like I’m wasting my time.  It feels like I’m bettering my technical skills, even if I’m shielded more or less from reading people by a pane of glass and who know how many miles of distance.  And, it can be just plain fun.  I’ll be honest, even when playing against artificial intelligence, I’ll pump my fist and cheer when I take a huge all-in the same as if there were stakes on the table.

And if my love for playing poker can help lift us out of our horrible recession….let’s do it. I’ll bring my own stimulus to the table and check raise all night!

Stacking up poker’s taboo subject

March 1, 2009

I wrote another article recently about how people are now using the iPhone to download a program to help you cheat at Blackjack at the casino. Why an amateur shady gambler would want to risk as many as six years in prison, not to mention major fines, broken bones and lifetime bans, is beyond me. But apparently it’s happening, since California had to warn Nevada about it a few weeks ago just to get it on their radar.

I won’t get too deep into the details of how it works, but it basically acts like a mini card-counting computer that gives you a nice, soothing vibrate whenever the ratio of higher cards left in the deck climbs to a favorable number for the player. Favorable in the temporary sense for your wallet, but quite unfavorable for your pretty boy image after you get your face bashed in with a nice set of brass knuckles.

Anyhow, the story got me thinking about poker specifically. Have you ever cheated at poker on any level? Did you get away with it? Why’d you do it? Was it with people you knew or didn’t know?

I asked myself all those questions before I put them out here to the public, and my answer is simple. The last time I cheated at cards, the stakes were for nickels and I was in my early high school career. It was a few times, and it was with a mix of people I did and didn’t know. So in all honesty my experience with cheating is about as minimal as you can get without having crossed that path at least once in your life. I was soon able to mature and let better judgment, fair play and wisdom take hold to prevent me from walking that road any further. However, I have from time to time made aquaintence with some weathered souls who had their fair share of colorful cheating stories. And through them, I’ve learned the basic ins and outs of cheating in a non-casino poker setting.

These probably won’t be a surprise to any of you, but just for the sake of conversation:

1) Stacking the deck. This is typically the easiest form of cheating to pull off…but you have to be a real scumbag to go through with it, mostly because you have to be in such familiar company that either you can count on someone tapping the deck when it comes time to cut, or it’s understood there’s no cut to begin with. Basically, all you have to do is sweep discards and work the order so you find yourself magically sitting on three aces after the first deal. Or learn how to bottom deal and “cut” the cards the way Worm did in Rounders. “I’ve been working on my chops!”

2) Buddy system. The take is half as much, but the odds of success are higher since you’re working with a friend. You can even be the one taking the fall to benefit the other guy. Think Rounders and Shade. If you’re in a house game and playing under a solid table, you can even do some careful swapping beyond where the curious eye can see.

That’s actually all I’ve got. Some more seasoned in the dark arts of deception might have more intricate explanations of ways to come out ahead in a dishonest manner.

But let me clarify. I don’t condone cheating, I don’t cheat. It’s not cool. I’m just writing about it here. The whole fun of playing poker, since you’re only really going to win or lose a minimal amount in a house game, is honing your skill and having a good time. Neither of which you’re going to accomplish if you rely on an unfair advantage to accomplish victory.

You know, some of the people who told me their stories of witnessed mischief actually said they or someone they knew were so good at cheating, such an expert and so flawless in their techinque, they could do it right in front of you in plain view and you wouldn’t even know it.

Yet another reason to only play house games with people you know. Who knows, they might try to cheat, but at least you know they’ll probably suck at it and fail. Then you can beat their ass and make them promise to hook you up with their sister as punishment.

For the cheater, not his sister, of course.