Friday, April 30, 2010

Adage of the day

"When you're telling a story to someone, make sure that both parties are speaking the same language" - ME

I dealt a charity poker tournament two nights ago for a school in Harlem called the Children's Storefront, an excellent institution which offers completely free education to needy kids. It's a wonderful institution which serves a great need in the community and I'm proud to be able to help out in any way I can.

It's also a lot of fun. The organizer of the charity tournament, with whom I've worked for 4 years now, goes all out (or all-in?) for this event and we had 260 players at the Hudson Terrace event space. A bunch of sports and poker celebrities were in attendance, including Justin Tuck, Jeff Nelson, Robert and Olga Varkonyi and Roy Winston. The tournament has an awful structure, as most charity tournaments do, but the money goes directly to the school so there isn't a lot of complaining (except from one incredible asshole who makes it deep every year and constantly bitches about how badly the tournament is run). Prizes are donated and can be substantial. First prize this year was a 7 night stay at a high end Aspen, CO hotel and 100,000 American Express points to use for airfare. 2nd place was a weekend in an East Hampton's mansion on the beach. And the other 7 prizes were equally worthy of inclusion.

As a poker player, I abhor charity tournaments. It's fine to play in one with the understanding that you're basically making a donation to the charity. But if you go into it thinking you have an edge on the clueless players in attendance (some of whom have never played before), then you're asking for disappointment. Charity tournaments, and this one was no exception, suffer from a multitude of major problems; strictly speaking from a poker perspective.

1. They're poorly organized - Though the tournament I dealt went off somewhat smoothly, compared to previous incarnations, there were a couple of organizational issues. First, the dealers were not informed ahead of time as to how the buy-ins worked. Each players, when they bought into the tournament, received a green plastic chip as proof of their buy-in. I was told, at various times, that chip was supposed to be surrendered so I could give them their starting stack OR the chip represented an extra $500 in tournament chips OR the chip was a full rebuy. In addition, I was presented with a lavender chip from a player and was informed that it was a rebuy chip and it was worth either $3,000, $3,500 or $4,000 in chips. Confusion was rampant. Also, rebuy rules were not explicitly defined. Someone told me that we wouldn't be allowing rebuys unless the player was under their starting stack. But what was the starting stack, since add-ons were allowed from the start. With nothing to go on, I allowed all players at my table to rebuy at any level, rationalizing that this was for charity after all and the add-ons were important to the school's functioning. But from a poker perspective, that sucks. Oh, the dealers also weren't given extra chips for players, so when they rebought in the middle of the round, they were often sitting with no chips in front of them! I had to make change from other players constantly.

2. The blind structure is a toss-up - At the start of the tournament, starting stacks averaged around $5,000 (given add-ons) and blinds were $100-$200. Blinds were supposed to go up every 20 minutes and rebuys were supposed to be allowed for the first hour. But by the end of the 3rd level, the tournament organizer decided that not enough people had rebought. So he extended the 3rd level for 30 minutes to allow for more re-buys! It was comical. I understand why he did it, but from a poker player's point of view, taking liberties with the tournament structure in the middle of the tournament is taboo. How could a poker player plan his strategy if he doesn't know what the blinds will be from one hand to another? Also, as happens every year, there are too many players left at the end of the night. With 30 minutes left until we had to vacate the premises, there were still 3 full tables left and the average stack had an M of around 6. That wouldn't do. Out of nowhere, blinds started being raised around every 3 minutes until the average M dropped to 2 and it was a complete luck-fest. This, not coincidentally, is when Mr. Asshole started bitching the loudest. He was sucked out on before the final table, thank the lord.

So charity tournaments aren't a good proposition from a profit point of view, even given the incredibly poor play and low skill level of the average attendant. Case in point, Roy Winston was at my table and decided to shove his stack on a flush draw. A woman called with a pair of 2's (!) and won the pot, eliminating the 2007 Borgata Main Event winner. I saw a lot of skilled players swing through my table and attempt complicated plays and bluffs against players and get called every time. Which brings me back to my maxim at the top of the post. If you're telling a story in a hand of poker, make sure the person you're telling it to speaks the same language you do!

I see this a lot in Atlantic City, Vegas and anywhere poker is being played. Person A, an obviously skilled participant is the best player at his/her table. However, A's chipstack is swinging wildly up and down. Usually the culprit is A's tendency to try and run over the table. What a lot of poker player's forget, however, is that bluffing only works when the person you're running the bluff against is good enough to understand the hand you're trying to represent! This is why beginners don't fold to bluffs very often; they're playing their own hand and haven't formed the first opinion on what you have. What person A is missing, and what all poker players need to work on, is to categorize your opponent's first. Learn who is good enough to fold a good hand and who's going to stay in if they have any piece of the board. Who's going to play back at you and who's going to pick a better spot. In short, who's speaking your language.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunday Backgammon tournament

The 60 Wall backgammon organizer, an exceedingly nice gentleman, has introduced me to many folks in the backgammon community. One of those people is "Wheels" (not her real name), a very nice lady who runs a monthly backgammon tournament in a roving location around the city. Wheels is a high ranking member of the New York Backgammon community and has placed highly in many tournaments over the years. As a result, she has a long list of backgammon contacts she calls on to form these tournaments.

After having gotten her emails for a few months about the monthly tournaments, I finally found the time to go ahead and attend one. When I got there, Wheels was busy dividing the participants (about 20 people showed up) into different categories. She had a Beginner, Intermediate and Open category. Beginner was $10 entry fee, Intermediate was $50 and Open was $100. When I arrived, my backgammon board set in tow, she had already placed my name in the Intermediate category. I asked her how she knew where to put me and she replied, "it's my job to know". Fair enough. Unfortunately, only 3 people were on the Intermediate list and only 2 had shown up! So it was decided that me and my opponent, rather than playing a bracket of one game each, would play the best two out of three to 9 points a match.

I was doing very well in the first match and the score was 4-2, in my favor, when I took a very bad 4 cube which turned into a gammon and the match was over just like that. Just as the match was ending, Wheels came over and said that the 3rd participant had arrived! She said that we could now revert to the original format but I protested that it wasn't fair. If we went back to the one match format, I would be out of the tournament. If I had known that, I might not have taken the cube that ended my first match! So it was agreed that we would simply do a round robin format with each player playing the other and best 2 out of 3 winning the contest.

I won my second match handily and was tied with my opponent 1-1. After taking that bad cube that cost me the first match, my concentration went into laser focus and I was playing great. It didn't help that I was rolling well too. In the 3rd match, I was cruising into the win at 7-2 (mostly because my opponent took an awful double that turned into a gammon win for me) and I just had to hold on for the win. Then I did a dumb, awful and stupid rookie tournament mistake. I was ahead in my game, with the score of 7-2 (remember we were playing to 9 points each match) and I cubed her. Whoops. In my head, I though that she would just drop the cube and move on to the next game. I was well ahead in position. But she took the cube at 2 and then turned around on her next roll and cubed me back! From her point of view, it makes total sense. If she take the 2 cube and loses, the match is over, so she might as well make it 4 to give her better position if she happens to win. And if she gammons? Then she wins the game AND the match. Which is exactly what happened. Even though I had an advanced anchor and had two of her runners back behind a 5 prime, she happened to roll a magic 66 which not only got her runners out, but also hit one of my blots. She then picked up another blot I had out on her next roll after I failed to come back onto the board and just like that I had two on the bar, two on her inside board and she was quickly filling up a prime. Before I could get both my checkers back into play, she had gotten a few checkers off and she rolled doubles twice more, clearing even more checkers and never leaving me a single shot. She gammoned me without breaking a sweat and I felt foolish. It's a mistake I won't be making again anytime soon.

My opponent ended up winning her second match against the late-comer, but their match took so long that rather than play for 2nd place prize money, I simply chopped it with him and got half my buyin back. I did better than that actually, because while I was waiting for them to finish their match, I played a small cash game with one of the beginner players, winning 16 points at $1 a point. It was a very nice guy and his wife who I chatted up and befriended. Hopefully, I'll be able to see them again soon at one of the weekly backgammon meetups that get held in the city.

For those interested in backgammon tournaments, give me a shout and I'll put you in touch with Wheels (if you don't already know who I'm talking about). It was a really fun experience and I'm looking forward to next month!

Backgammon update and a mea culpa

In my previous blog post, I outed a backgammon player (Pigeon from my previous posts), who had done a dick thing by running up a large debt and then skipping out. I exposed his name and a bit about his background because I thought by shaming him publicly, he might feel badly about himself and make good by paying up. Well, it turns out that I have had to redact my story at the request of the game organizer and I have to relay that I may not have had all the information available to make my charge.

The blogger's dilemma.

Here's what happened from my point of view. I have been playing Backgammon on and off at 60 Wall Street from some time now and I've gotten to know the players pretty well. They all know me as a small time player who will normally play $2 or $3 a point, and sometimes venture as high as $5, but never beyond that. The experienced players are always begging me to play them, knowing their skill level far outstrips mine, but I almost always decline and play Mr. Hustle, mostly because he is amenable to playing me for my $2 or $3 a point stakes. Also, Mr. Hustle is more than happy to instruct me on how to play properly and we have spent many hours debating the benefits of various moves on particular dice rolls and board situations. This is the cost of my education; my tuition, so to speak.

But a few months ago, Pigeon came to roost at 60 Wall and Mr. Hustle stopped playing me and started playing him. The stakes started at $5 a point and Pigeon was losing badly. 10, 15, 20, 30 points a session! Pigeon was very polite and would pay promptly when he lost, always coming back for more in a day or two. I knew Mr. Hustle depended on his Backgammon winnings for his livelihood, so when a particularly bad player like Pigeon was willing to play him for stakes that might result in a real payday, I didn't object when my game with him dried up. For his part, Pigeon refused to believe that he was as bad as people thought. He kept upping the stakes. First, from $5 to $10 a point. He continued to lose. Again, he would be down $200-$300 a session and would pay promptly when he lost. Then, he upped the stakes again. This time to $25 a point. When I witnessed this happening, I was astounded. Isn't it the definition of insanity when you do the same thing over and over and keep expecting a different result? But then again, perhaps Pigeon had this in mind after all. Maybe he was the biggest hustler out there and wanted to lose 100 points at low stakes so he could get it all back with interest at higher stakes.

Mr. Hustle, who gambles for a living, knew that $25 was above his bankroll, even if it seemed like easy money. He stuck to $10 a point and got another player to back the other $15 a point. During that first session, Pigeon broke even. Then $25 became the defacto betting amount for him. For each session, Mr. Hustle would put up his own money for $10 a point and then find someone to put up the other $15. He had no shortage of customers. Based on Pigeon's previous drubbings, it seemed like easy money. I did a few sessions with him myself, at $15 a point, and came away with a solid $250 profit after paying the house rake. But I noticed a disturbing trend around this time. Pigeon started getting frustrated with his losses and he would leave, almost without notice, and wave goodbye saying, "See you tomorrow". Mr. Hustle was understandably upset when Pigeon would leave without settling up, as is customary in any game played for money. But Pigeon would always return a day or two later, settle from the previous session, and continue on.

I warned Mr. Hustle to be wary of this behavior. I told him he should have Pigeon put 20 points worth of money in escrow with the game organizer, a trusted party, and then settle against the escrow amount after each session. But Mr. Hustle ignored my advice. Perhaps he thought that ruffling Pigeon's feathers would piss him off enough to drive him away. Or perhaps he just wasn't interested in confrontation. Either way, Pigeon kept playing his games and upping the stakes. Towards the end, he was playing for $50 a point, with more than one person taking a piece on the other side. After a particularly egregious loss, he left and never returned.

This is where the story gets murky. I came to 60 Wall one day to play and Mr. Hustle said Pigeon had left without paying and he wasn't coming back. He told me that Pigeon had called the game organizer, said he was in over his head and wasn't going to return, nor pay. It was a few days after that information that I made my blog post outing him.

But one day after I posted, the game organizer called me on my cell and asked me to take down the blog post with Pigeon's personal information. He said that Pigeon had always intended to pay and that the payment was supposed to come in a few weeks time. I asked if that had been the situation all along and he said it was. So I felt like an idiot. I had publicly outed this guy based on false information that I had. Don't get me wrong, he still did a dick thing by not paying his debts immediately, but I didn't know that he was negotiating with the participants after the fact. Mostly because I was told a different story from Mr. Hustle!

So I did a good thing for the community and tried to get a welsher to pay, but in reality I probably should have kept my nose out of it. After telling the story to Ali, she asked why I would even bother in the first place. It's not like Pigeon owed *me* money, after all. I replied that I felt that anybody who plays a cash game without the intention of paying, ends up degrading the gambling experience for everyone else. I was doing an altruistic thing by forcing this guy into the light and making the community I was a part of a little bit clearer and cleaner. But I wasn't totally in the right here, given the bad information I received. And for that, I apologize. I don't feel sorry for outing Pigeon, but for acting without the consent of the people whose main business this whole affair was. I should have gotten the permission of Mr. Hustle before I splashed his dealings out in public in this way.

Blogging is a hard thing to do.

The upside is that a day after my blog post and my redaction, Pigeon made good on his obligation. I saw him a day after that, playing Backgammon in Bryant Park (something I'd recommend for everyone on a nice afternoon). We exchanged knowing glances but no words as we each played different opponents. My previously amicable relationship with him is probably broken (not the first time I've burned a bridge to be sure) but I'm much much happier about it knowing that Mr. Hustle is getting his due.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Florida poker: All grown up!

The Florida legislature has finally passed true no limit poker for the state! The article doesn't make it clear when the new compact goes into effect, but this will have a huge impact on the state of poker in Florida. I can't wait to see how the casino developers take advantage of this!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Catching up

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and there’s lots to tell.

First thing’s first. I got a new job and I love it, so far. After I got laid off from Merrill Lynch in January of ’09, I had trouble finding anything for a while until the summer when I got a contracting position at A.I.G. to automate their financial reporting systems. Flash forward 8 months later and I had done the work I set out to do. Things had been slowing down at the office in terms of work and I knew it was only a matter of time until my manager brought me into his office to tell me there was nothing more for me to do and I would be asked to leave. Out of nowhere, I get a phone call from a man I used to work for at JPMorgan all the way back in 2002. He said that he had joined a new project at Thomson Reuters and the work they were doing was similar to the work I had done with him all those years ago. Being a natural fit, would I like to come aboard? My answer: sign me up! No sooner had I agreed to the interview process than my current AIG manager did indeed let me go from my contract. Perfect timing! I got the position at Thomson and have been there since April 1st, again as a contractor working on a long term project that will go for at least 18 months or more. Yeah, I don’t get health insurance, but my hourly rate is higher than it was at A.I.G. and I can use the difference to buy private insurance when my COBRA runs out in November.

Speaking of November, I’m getting married that month! Ali and I have set the date of November 6th, 2010 to tie the knot at The Marriott Resort in Aruba. We went down there for a little scouting trip from April 9th-12th and thought it was magnificent. I don’t want to give away too many details before the big day but suffice it to say, the beach wedding was a great idea for us. We got to spy on a wedding going on down there and the atmosphere itself, with the ocean gently lapping at the shore 15 feet from the bride and groom, with the sun setting behind them throwing hues of pink and purple on the shoreline, was absolute bliss. We met with the wedding coordinator and managed to get a lot of planning done in the short time we had available to us.

Also, I played poker. I had a very successful poker trip to AC with Christine the weekend before I started my new gig and was able to rack up an impressive +$1,000 weekend playing $1-$2 NLHE. I didn’t have a single huge session, more like a bunch of small wins here and there that added up. +$150, +$290, +$210, etc… Most of the time my wins were of the basic flop and trap variety, but the donkeys were paying me off something fierce. I’ve also added value betting to my repertoire. Previously in my career, when I have a marginal hand on the river but my opponent is out of position and playing passively, I’d check the river in position for fear of being trapped. But I’ve been leading out for 1/3 of the pot lately and more often than not, I will be ahead by a kicker or my small two pair will best my opponent’s TP/TK. The value bet only has to work 2/3 times to be profitable, so I’ll do it in position when I feel my opponent has been playing weak and looking to keep the pot small by check/calling. The strategy pumped up my profits pretty nicely, turning $50 profits on pots into $70-$80 profits.

A few days after that weekend, I went down with Darko for a two day mid-week trip and left with around $100 profit for the two days. My profit didn’t tell the whole story though. I made around $800 playing $1-$2 NLHE and gave back most of it playing $10-$20 OE. The mixed game at the Borgata continues to be my Achilles heel. I have trouble resisting it, even though I know it’s a bad value. First off, I’m a losing player at the game. Not badly (I’m down around $1,000 on the game lifetime over a few dozen session), but enough to know I’m not beating the game. The two main problems are that the players all know each other, leading to a lot of soft play which keeps new money from coming onto the table, and the fact that the players are locals and quite good at the game. There aren’t enough soft spots to feed off of, which should be my clue to give it up and go for something profitable ($1/$2 NLHE!).

So a note to anyone traveling with me: Keep me off the mixed games!!!!

{Story about Backgammon player redacted at the request of the game organizer}