Thursday, December 3, 2015

Texas Hold'em Is Scary and Fun

“I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do - the day after.” 
― Oscar Wilde

I played Texas Hold'em for a few years in the early 1990s at informal poker nights and had a lot of fun. Usually I went home a few hundred dollars up or down, mostly down to begin with.

Then I became a full time research student. Suddenly I had tremendous freedom in what I did each day with enough scholarship income to avoid hunger. It was a joyous time where I could pursue anything I found interesting and this gave me an opportunity to improve my game. I looked for information on strategy and odds. I found only meagre resources in the libraries I searched but consumed what I discovered. The internet was barely functional then, no web browser and no way to search but I did discover a no money online multiplayer Hold'em game and it was a great resource for procrastination. Gradually I improved so that I went home from poker nights in front more often than not. Not from a thorough understanding of probabilities and strategy but from an intuition developed through practice.

There is a lot of luck in no limit Holdem so winning or losing over a short period is not a good indication of skill but as I got better I formed the view I was second to one other player who, like me, turned up for every match. A poker night would last for hours but nearly all the money would be won in a few hands and the evening's outcome was determined in a few crucial seconds. I had worked with my nemesis when we were hired as contractors for a complex technical project. I considered he had insufficient humility to abandon a priori beliefs when evidence required it and an unwillingness to persevere when a problem became difficult which led too often to failing to solve the problems we were working on. We remained friends though, and he went on to a series of sales roles in high profile technology companies, excelled and became wealthy. I could often build up my pile during the grind but too often he took me on the big hands. I'd sit there quietly, drinking little and focusing on the game while he drank heavily, kept up a banter that included what was in his hand, his strategy and what we should all do. He was a great raconteur and sometimes played hands without bothering to look at his cards. He seemed easy to beat. He would tell you, who had the best hand then raise against them and as he predicted lose. As far as I could tell he never lied. There were several times he had nothing, told me so, raised against me and lost. I could trust him, would follow his advice and win. Yet too often on those few crucial hands, he took the pot. I don't think he bothered too much with theory or probability, he just got inside your head. The most painful experiences were when, confident I had the nuts, I'd  put all my effort into aggressively building the pot. I'd be pleased at my success only to discover my error at the showdown. The sense of being played by a drunk was emotionally devastating, I could never be sure if it was luck and that uncertainty further reduced my self belief. I no longer trusted my judgement and played too passively. Leaving money on the table is easier emotionally but over time is as expensive as overconfidence. My drunken nemesis would advise me to be more aggressive and while the advice was good it would unnerve me even more. Just occasionally he would be drunk enough to barely function and then I'd have a chance.

High volatility made outcomes for a particular evening difficult to predict but over time all players would form a view of their relative ranking and persuading those who ranked lowly to keep turning up is difficult. Some low ranking players, like me, would try harder and improve but most would give up. The best new players were those suffering the Dunning Krueger effect and volatility could hide this from them for quite a while. Even then though, a constant stream of new players was needed. Eventually we ran out and poker nights came to an end.

I find casinos entertaining. I don't delude myself I can win, but observing my own emotions and my success or otherwise in remaining objective and particularly watching the emotions in others is fascinating and fun.

With a 2.7% house edge and no skill required, roulette can provide a lot of fun as you interact with the dealer and other players, especially friends. If you turn over $1,000 you can expect to lose less than $30. So it is, on average, a cheap night out where you can go home with a wipe out or thousands up. Enough either way to generate an emotional response. Poker machines on the other hand I can't understand the attraction of. There is no fun in cold interactions with a machine that you know can't lose. The worst for me are those that provide choice. I know that if I hold reels optimally I will lose but if I get it wrong I'll lose more and yet the optimum strategy is unknowable. For one US machine optimum strategy has been documented but mostly you don't know how many symbols are on a reel, how many of the ones you want are there or even if the simulated reels are random. How do you deal with that? The impossibility of rational choice I find paralysing and distressing. I'm unusual though because:-
As much as 70 percent of the $48 billion in gaming revenues raked in by the casinos comes from slots. (Texas Hold'em poker and other table games may be the latest gambling fad ..., but for the casinos it's all about machines, machines, machines.) - The Atlanic 2005
With roulette, there is human interaction and thinking doesn't help, so you can ignore the game and have fun observing others and playing with your emotions and theirs. Elaborate pseudo strategies will impress friends when you win. You can wax lyrical on almost any topic and be taken seriously but you lose all respect when you wipe out. How weird is that when it's not your wisdom or lack thereof but down to variance? To maximise variance and therefore respect or contempt, bet on single numbers and walk away after a win.

In the Canberra Casino there is a Hold'em game. There are no women there and the players are mostly unkempt but these guys are the elite, the gods of the casino. I look over from the roulette table jealously, want to sit with them and recapture the fun of those poker nights of yore. Unlike roulette though, it is a game of skill. That table is no place for illusory superiority and the stakes are high enough to inflict serious injury. The internet resources available now are awesome though, so with sufficient effort it should be possible to develop the necessary skills. Odds calculators, play analysis software and realms of strategy advice. Of course the resources are available to everyone so the standard of play must be much higher than back in the day. No longer could Chris Moneymaker arise from obscurity and turn $40 into $2.5 million. Online practice is now a basic requirement rather than an opportunity to develop an edge. I'm not sure I could be bothered to put in the required effort but perhaps working at it with a friend would be fun. I believe I could have matched my nemesis in online play but face to face is a different, superior skill. I tried for a poker face but strong emotion is hard to conceal. Only face to face do you feel the depths of despair when you are owned or experience sheer joy if you successfully throw off the yoke. Only then are you happy when your opponent consumes another drink.

Could I do it?