Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Education of a Poker Player

My brother, Lee, sent this book as a birthday present, having found a 4th edition of the original printing in a used book store in Camden, Maine, and thinking I'd be amused by it, even if, as my non-poker-playing brother said, "the tactics are probably out of date."

Interestingly, while some of the games aren't played often anymore (Variations of Five- and Seven-Card Draw, such as Five-Card Draw, with Deuces Wild and the Joker, and Spit in the Ocean), the card strategy that Yardley outlines applies just as well to Texas Hold `Em today as it did for those card games when the book was first published in 1957. That strategy can pretty much be summed in these observations:

1. Many players play too many hands.

2. Most players who play too many hands are also
optimists.

3. Most players only have one game.
The first observation is self-evident to anyone who plays poker regularly. You realize after a time - if you're improving your game, at least - that you're now throwing away many hands - Aces with bad kickers whether soooooooooooted or not, small pairs when there is a raise and callers (or even not) ahead of you - that you used to play whether it made sense to play them or not. You realize you've stopped calling as much, and most of betting is either fold, raise, or re-raise.

I'm raising hell at the $5, $10, and $20 SnGs on UltimateBet of late by applying both observations. At such small buy-ins, the usual players on the table are newbies or don't-care-bies. They're there for the action - such as it is - or they're learning the game, or they may even dimly realize that their style of play confines them to the smaller beer tables because they're regularly and expensively trounced at higher buy-ins. In any case, with any given table of 10 at $5-$20 buy-ins, you can safely assume that anywhere from 3 to 5 players are going to be betting cards that their Mamma would be unhappy to see them play. And once in, most of those will keep betting in the hope of pulling out from their nose-dive before crashing.

The game usually goes so that by the 15-30 limits at least two people are gone, having gone all-in, sometimes with decent cards, oft-times with nothing but a wish and a prayer. And there's one to two players with oversized stacks, having done the same and won, sometimes with the best starting cards, sometimes through some unbelievable suck-out.

My modus operandi in the games is usually to lay low at the beginning and only bet when I can get in cheaply. I won't play past the Flop unless I think I've got the hand locked. Even then, I'll fold against all-ins that I can't cover and if there's some sort of draw on the board that I couldn't beat.

Even with all the limits I put on myself, I tend to win the hands that I play. And I tend to win more chips than I really should have, because of Observation #2 above.

The aggressive players cull themselves and we get down to 4-5 players and near the Bubble. If I've won - or maintained - enough to still have a viable stack and the limits are still relatively low (which happens more often than not thanks, as I said, to the aggressive action), I usually have a very good chance to make it into the money thanks to Observation #3.

Few people I've seen in those lower buy-ins can change gears. Even the ones that can tend to fall back into their normal betting pattern over time... because it is their normal betting pattern. So, aggressive players still tend to be aggressive, even when it's in their best interests not to be. People who have tried to run bluffs will try to bluff again, even after being caught out at them. People who like to bet draws won't fold them. Tight players stay tight, even when their stacks are being flensed to the bone by the Blinds.

I'm not very good at changing gears myself - especially as it concerns that last sentence above - unless I stay focused and think about what I'm doing. Lately, I've been able to do that. So, I tend to bet more hands in this latter part of the game, especially against the smaller stacks, play the aggressive players more aggressively, call the bluffers.

And it seems to work more often than not. Will it always work? Variance catches you out. You get a lousy run of cards, the Blinds eat you up, you have to start gambling. Or, you get crippled or knocked out altogether because of some buffoon's bonehead play. It is gambling, after all.

"Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't," as Old Lodge Skins once said.

The author of "The Education of a Poker Player," Herbert O. Yardley, who died a year after the book's publication, began his career as a code clerk with the U.S. State Department. During World War I, Yardley served in the cryptologic section of Military Intelligence with the American Expeditionary Forces. After the war, Yardley lead the first peacetime cryptanalytic organization in the United States, MI-8.

Funded by the Army and the State Department, MI-8 was disguised as a New York City company that made commercial codes for businesses. Their actual mission was to break the diplomatic codes of different nations, an endeavor in which the were fairly successful, especially as it came to the Japanese pre-WWII.

In 1929, the State Department closed down MI-8, according to legend with Secretary of State Henry Stimson famous disclaimer: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

Unemployed, and accustomed to the finer things in life, as you can tell from "TEoaPP", Yardley wrote "The American Black Chamber," which revealed the work of MI-8. The book became an international best seller. Although the Army tried, the espionage laws at the time contained a loophole that prevented the government from prosecuting Yardley. Yardley continued to act as a cryptanalytic consultant for several other countries, but never worked for the U.S. again.

More about Yardley - where I found the above information - can be found at the NSA site.

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