Sunday, July 04, 2004

The River Runs Through Me

YTD: +$24237.29

I recently checked out the one of Andy Glazer’s new articles. I have very mixed views on Mr. Glazer. On the one hand he writes extremely well and that writing is informed by at the very least reasonable poker skills. This is a marked contrast to the other popular writers out there who seem barely able to tell a flush from a straight. On the other hand, his moral compass seems a little off from true North. He continually defends the indefensible in Phil H’s behaviour; he thinks Daniel N is a man of integrity; worst of all he made a massive mistake in his reporting of the WSOP 2002 Big One and simply did not change it, despite it being pointed out. This shows a lack of respect for both his readers and his work.

Anyway, the article was basically saying that poker is a card game, at a basic level, and that poker is a people game at an advanced one. This to me seems to be missing a fundamental point, that at its core, underlying both, poker is a game of mathematics. Anyone looking at some of the posts on rgp from Howard L can see that at the very top level, many of the players have an extremely strong underpinning in the maths of the game. As some of the hand examples we have looked at here, sometimes the maths situation supercedes the psychology. And clearly, you can be successful in some poker fields, such as tournaments, without any strong understanding of the maths at all – Phil H recently bet that AK offsuit was a favourite over AK suited :-) But how much better a player would he be if he stopped passing those 4 to 1 favourite situations just because he does not want to put his stack in jeopardy?

A simple use of the mathematics of poker is to use it as a barometer of your play. Were you lucky in a hand? Did the maths justify your actions? How much “extra” do the intangibles of the play have to make up for the shortfall in the equity you have? There are numerous sims that can do this for you, but it is still good to hand crank the numbers through a spreadsheet and get a feel for a situation. I am convinced that one of the factors that contributed to my improvement in playing PL games was my determination and perseverance in examining difficult situations on a regular basis in just this way.

If you wanted to sail, the cards may be the boat of your play, with people skills and psychology the rudder and sail. But where would you be without the ocean? Navigating a complex tributary, you’re not going to get far without the river. Mathematics is this undercurrent beneath our complex, people and cards game.


Anonymous said...

Is Andy a good writer? I think not - he's an OK writer with a flair for a glib phrase; I'd hate to read a poker book if he were to ever write one. As to defending Phil H - well, wouldn't you if the first time the two of you met was in a hot tub ;-). Does Dan N lacks integrity? Perhaps common sense but that's not quite the same.
As to maths, I'm never too sure where I stand on this - as an extreme case, if you know someone is a chronic bluffer, and you let him bluff off his chips to you, is that psychology or playing the percentages? I think you can disentangle the two only rarely.

Anyway, thanks for the blog - it's very good. Keep up the plo stuff; it's really interesting. Rich. P.

74offsuit said...

Hi Dave

I agree, you underestimate the math at your peril. However, to take the math apart over one, two, or even a thousand hands may lead us to problems. The main reason for this as I see it, is the math we are concerned with is probability theory. It is only from a large sample of hands, will this theory become reality. Leading us to the frustration, in poker anyway, of 'small sample population'. I first consciously came across this in Andy Bellins book 'Poker Nation' which I thought was a great read. I am sure you are fully aware of this concept, and I don't pretend to be teaching anything to anybody that is not already known, I just wanted to add this to the melting pot.



PS my blog at

Anonymous said...

It was about time I looked in. I guess ultimately every decision boils down to an understanding of maths somewhere along the line, but I’m sure we’ll never see the day where we find a number at the end of every poker decision. Basing decisions on the current application of maths in poker becomes difficult because, for example, we might rightfully choose to make a decision with has lower EV, and of course, there are the intangibles that Dave describes that simply can’t yet be included or really estimated. A large constituent of these intangibles is what I call implied value.

A lot of the deductive analysis of hands is assessed within the space of the hand itself, which is understandable since it is easier to measure, but it is by no means accurate and in some environments not even approximate. Quite simply implied value is the likely reward or cost that a decision in a particular hand provides to hands played in the future. Doyle Brunson alludes to this in Super System, where he admits to often putting his in his chips in a poor position, because he wants to protect his table image. This makes a lot of sense and is vindicated by his success. Unfortunately, a strategy where maths is ‘discarded’ is fraught with perils.

I used to play Blackjack regularly, now BJ is, of course, a very mathematical game. I found that having a belief and understanding in mathematics was of enormous benefit when playing the game. A situation that might have easily arisen was one where I’ve lost a several hands and have a fairly large bet out and find myself with 11 against, say, an 8. Three pictures are drawn in front of me and it is my turn to double. Should I double? I certainly don’t want to, my instincts are telling me not to, it ‘feels’ unlikely that a fourth ten will not arrive and, of course, I’m on such a bad run. My human instincts and desires are telling me to not to double and naturally all those bad beats are weighing me down. But I know that I must double, I know that the mathematics underpinning the strategy in this game isn’t lying and like most people I am naturally loss averse and this emotion is clearly distorting my view. So I double down.

So what’s the point of this digression? Once you accept the existence of implied value and other intangibles in poker, then your understanding of the game improves and a realisation of game theory ensues. But do we start playing better? Do our results improve? Your decision at some instinctive level is not now ‘what decision gives me the greatest EV?’ it is, as Dave points out, ‘are the intangible, (or immeasurable) benefits large enough to make up for the loss in equity?’ Boy this is dangerous. Why?

Imagine me in the 11v8 situation in Blackjack. I’m about to double when a genie pops out and says ‘There is some additional benefit, hard to measure, that’s not included in the maths, through not doubling and just taking a card’ – don’t try and picture it. What’s the right decision? ‘Dunno!’, but the genie has just given me the excuse to do exactly what I want to do, because after all ‘how can I know what the right decision is now?’ The more things there are to measure the harder it is to process and determine what to do – the more our instincts and emotions take over. Emotions come to the surface far more in poker than in BJ, after all its more personal. Many of the poor decisions I have made in poker have been made because I’ve looked for a reason to do something I want to do, and if you try to take into consideration more factors, then you will surely find one that agrees with the decision you want to make and you have your excuse. The more maths is involved in our decision making the harder it is for us to deviate from making the ‘right’ decision.

Dave asks the difficult question and rightfully concludes that it’s too hard to answer analytically. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that Dave chooses to play the ring cash games. The ‘hard to measure benefits’ have less influence in these games. There is, for example, less of a requirement to ‘keep the guy honest’, because he isn’t going to have too many opportunities to bluff you as he does in, say, a short-handed game. In short handed poker as well as tournament poker there is a game outside the game, in which I feel in agreement with AG where the numbers have less of an influence – but of course its not numbers or instinct, its both, its just that different games have different proportions of them.