Thursday, May 29, 2014

Poker, it's a very strange game

[note: I've been absent for a while, and it's cost me $300 so far. I'll get better if only because I can't afford to do otherwise.]

The World Series of Poker just got underway, and someone at one of my first tables started a conversation about the strangest things they had seen at a poker table. Since I've played over a million hands of live poker (a sad commentary of its own), I figured I was in a good position to tell a few interesting ones. I haven't really planned this out, so I have no idea how extensive this will become - I'm going to divide it by casino, so at least there's some structure.

Hollywood Park, 1998
Back in the day, I played almost every day at Hollywood Park, usually 15-30 or 20-40 limit hold 'em, eventually moving up to 40-80. The quality of the games varied widely, but at least 2-3 times a week, especially during racing season, the games were crazy, rock 'em-sock 'em poker. This was one of those days, although that really only accounts for the pre-flop and flop play in this story.

I was playing 20-40 in a game where nearly every hand was capped before the flop. In this hand, I was in the big blind, and it was capped to me; I looked down at Ac Kc. I'm totally OK with putting in three more bets with this hand (duh), knowing that I can get away quickly if the flop doesn't hit me well. The small blind, two other players and I see the flop. 

You could say it hit me well: Qc Jc Tc, my first-ever flopped royal flush. My first thought was, "Lucky for me that this was one of those capped-preflop hands, since no one can really have much of this." But as this thought was forming, the small blind bet. I resisted the urge to kiss him, and called. To my astonishment, it went raise-raise-raise behind me. I'm OK with putting another $60 in.

The turn was a blank. The betting action was exactly the same - bet, call, raise, raise, raise. I called.

If it's possible for me to hit a bad card here, I did: the river was the eight of clubs. This was a scare card (like the board wasn't?) - the lone nine of clubs made a straight flush, and even if someone didn't have that, the lone Ace of clubs was good for the nut flush.

This, of course, slowed down the action. The small blind checked. I was pretty sure that I was only getting called here by the nine of clubs, maybe the Ace of clubs if he acted last, so I bet, and was further stunned to see all three players call. As the player in the small blind called, he said, "Hit your flush on the river, eh?" I said, "Not exactly," and showed my royal.

Postscript: One of the resident maniacs at the table asked to see all of the hands. The first two raisers both had AK; the small blind had QQ. So the flop hit everyone, me the hardest. But this brought up a question that I have never been able to fully resolve. I understand one player calling, although how he could do so without a club I don't know. But how do the other two overcall? 

The best answer I've gotten to this question was from Lou Krieger, who was at the table when this happened. "I call it pot-blindness. Imagine snow-blindness, but with chips. The last guy probably thought something like, 'I know I'm beat here, but there's almost $2,000 in the pot and it costs me $40, so I only have to be right 2% of the time.'"

I've mostly given up trying to figure out what people were thinking when they made terrible calls against me. They were probably thinking, "Mmmmm, doughnuts."

Hollywood Park, 2004
Sharon and I started playing big-bet poker in 2003, mostly in the $5-5 pot limit hold 'em game at Hollywood Park. At the time, I doubt that there were ten big-bet (pot limit or no limit) cash games anywhere in California.

This story features two despicable human beings, one of whom I've written about before - see "Sometimes there's justice in poker" for a much different story about Adnan. The other player was someone I had never seen before this particular night, and have never seen since. We'll call him Abe.

Abe is a poker stereotype - angry, abusive and convinced he's unbreakable. Adnan is a good foil for him, particularly in this game, because he has very deep pockets and not a lot of skill. He also drinks to excess - and I know something about alcohol and excess. He was tossed out of Hollywood Park for, among other things, flipping over a table after a particularly nasty beat. A confrontation between them was almost inevitable.

The game itself was a little odd by today's standards. The minimum buy-in was $200, with no maximum.  Most players bought in for $1,000 or more. Occasionally, one of the $10-20 or $15-30 limit players would take a shot at the game, usually for $200 or a little more, get skinned and skulk back to the limit games. But sometimes the game played very big, and this was one of those games. 

Before this hand started, Adnan had about $10,000 in front of him. Abe and Adnan had already gone at it a few times, and Abe had (correctly) identified Adnan as the fish. Of course, we all had, but we tried not to spread that around too much; Abe, on the other hand, wanted everyone, especially Adnan, to know that he knew. After Adnan won a very big pot, Abe asked him how much he had in total. Adnan told him that he had $8,000. Abe immediately pulled out more cash, and every time Adnan won a pot after that, Abe added to his stack to make sure he had Adnan covered.

The hand started like any other - someone put in a small raise, and a few players called, including Sharon and me. The flop came 764 unsuited. There was a little action, Sharon and I folded and three players saw the turn, which paired the 4. At this point there was about $200 in the pot. Adnan was first to act. He stood up to look at the board more closely (which he often did), then pointed to the pot and said "I bet the pot" in slightly Arabic-tinged English (he was from Lebanon). The dealer announced the pot size. The next player folded, setting up the confrontation.

Abe, sitting next to the dealer in seat one, scratched his scraggly beard for a minute, looked down at his chips, then at Adnan's. "You really have something?" he asked.

Adnan, still on his feet, bounced a little on his heels and said, "I always have something."

Abe scratched a little more, counting out a call. "You some kind of Arab?"


"Well, you might need to pull some money out of your head rag, 'cause I'm raising," Abe said. Seriously, this is exactly what he said. He announced a pot-size raise, making the bet about $800.

Adnan pointed to the pot again and said, "Pot." Before the dealer could tell him how much it was, Abe announced that he was raising the pot again. It took only another minute before the pot in this $5-5 game ballooned to $20,000.

In many big-bet games, players are given some flexibility to make deals before the outcome is decided. Back in these days, there were two types of deals. Players sometimes made money deals - for example, if there's $1,500 in the pot, and one player has a set and one has a flush on the turn, the player with the flush is about a 3.5:1 favorite. Sometimes players would agree to take some money out of the pot based on pot odds and play for the rest - for example, the player with the flush might take $700 out and the player with the set $200 (3.5:1), and then deal the last card for the remaining $600.

Another type of deal that players often made was "running it twice" or "running it three times." If they decided to run that same $1,500 pot twice, the dealer would put out one river card for half the pot, then a different river card for the other half. If they ran it three times, same thing, but for 1/3 of the pot each time. Players make these deals to reduce variance - this way, a single lucky card can't have a devastating effect. In the long run, though, it doesn't change things much - the odds are still the odds.

Adnan signaled to the dealer not to deal any more cards yet, and asked Abe if he wanted to make a deal. Abe said something like "I doubt there's any deal we can make, since I'm pretty sure you don't have a chance here."

In these situations, the players usually expose their hands, but neither did. Adnan said, "I wouldn't be so sure about that." Abe looked back at his hand, then at the board, and finally said, "OK, but I don't like to run it twice; I don't want us to chop the pot. How about we run it three times?" Adnan quickly agreed.

Reminder: the board was 7644. The dealer put up the first river card, a 7. He burned a card, put out another 7 for the second river, then burned again and exposed the last river card - a 4. Adnan announces, "Send me the whole pot."

Now, we had played a lot with Adnan, and had heard him say this before, both when he had it and when he didn't. Abe stood up and said, "I might have gotten unlucky here, but I think I get at least 1/3," turning over 66 for sixes full.

Adnan held his cards. Finally he said, "Which one do you want to see first?"

Abe said, "I don't give a fuck, you raghead camel-jockey, just put your fucking cards on the table." Seriously, I can't make this stuff up.

Adnan laughed. He's been called worse. He slams one hand down on the table, removes it and shows the 7 of hearts. Abe shook his head and said, "How can I get that unlucky?"

But Adnan wasn't done. "Don't you want to see the last card?" he taunted. "No," Abe said, "Let's just split the pot and get this over with."

"I don't think so," said Adnan, slamming the other hand down. He removed his hand and we all saw the 4 of spades.

Just in case you're not a poker player (but if you're not, your head probably exploded a few paragraphs back), Adnan got all of his money in with exactly three outs (cards that would win the pot for him). He needed exactly a 7 (two remaining in the deck) or a 4 (one remaining in the deck) to scoop. The odds against this are about 12,600:1, although I have seen it happen twice.

Abe stood up, put on his jacket and left. As I said, I had never seen him before, and have not seen him again to this day. If it were me, I might have sworn off poker.

Next up: Tobey Maguire, Dave Foley and a few other names I'll drop

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Trouble in Paradise (Part 2)

[NOTE: Congratulations to Tim S. for busting me. If you don't already know, I award a $100 charitable contribution on behalf of the first reader who points out that it's been more than seven days since my last post.]

While I have the great benefit of hindsight, I still find it very hard to believe that either PartyPoker or PokerStars was able to make a dent in Paradise Poker's market share. In 2002, the year PokerStars started (well, technically it was late December 2001), Paradise was just too big to fail. They appeared, for all intents, to be invulnerable.

In those days, it was not unusual to find upwards of 1,500 players on Paradise Poker. We often gawked jealously - we were happy when we had 200 players. Somewhere, I have an email from Isai talking about 'someday, when we regularly have over 1,000 players like Paradise.' I believed we would get there, but I also believed that we would be part of a rising tide. Barring some earth-shaking, unforeseen event, I saw no chance that Paradise wouldn't continue to be on top.

Having said that, Paradise did very little to act like the market leader. The biggest and most obvious mistake they made: they thought, as I did, that they were invincible. As an example, they did almost nothing from 2002-2004 to update their software (which was frankly pretty decent, but was rapidly being eclipsed by PokerStars and others). 

The best example of this was their lack of multi-table tournaments. To this day, it's inconceivable to me that Paradise Poker allowed PokerStars, PartyPoker and Full Tilt Poker to overtake them by neglecting this obviously popular and lucrative element of online poker. While we were developing and testing software to handle massively large tournaments, Paradise Poker was apparently willing to cede this part of the market, and we were more than willing to take it on.

At the same time, Paradise was adding features that had us all shaking our heads. For example, just before we did a major upgrade in 2003 that allowed PokerStars to conduct tournaments with as many as 10,000 players, Paradise launched an upgrade that increased the selection of snacks, cigars and drinks that players could 'order' at the table. These appeared on little round tables next to each player, as you can see on this link from the Wayback Machine (scroll down a little).

To be clear, developing multi-table poker tournament software was far from trivial. But it also wasn't rocket science. In addition to PokerStars, UltimateBet and PartyPoker (all reasonably well-funded startups), there were dozens of other sites that were already in the market with well-attended MTTs, including America's Cardroom, TruePoker and PokerRoom (all of which were small operations with limited resources). 

Paradise Poker seemed completely oblivious to this, the single mistake that cost them their empire. They certainly had the financial resources - our best guess back then was that they were grossing as much as $100,000 a day. And had they launched competitive MTTs before the day of reckoning (the day Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker), the online poker world could have been completely different.

Remember, too, that this didn't exactly sneak up on Paradise. For example, we launched the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) in July of 2002, and attracted fields that stunned everyone, including us. We guaranteed $200,000 over eight events, including a $1,050 Main Event with a $100,000 guarantee that saw a field of 238 players and a first prize of over $65,000. (More on this event in a future post.) Even a casual observer had to realize that MTTs were the future of online poker. And by the time they finally launched MTTs in the fall of 2003, the train had left the station.

I have often been asked the question "What brought about the poker boom?" My answer has always been the same: online poker, poker on TV and Chris Moneymaker winning the 2003 WSOP. The question I've been asked far less often is "How did PokerStars and PartyPoker catch Paradise Poker?" My uncharitable answer to this question is, "Paradise Poker made the classic mistake of believing they were untouchable."

In January of 2003, Paradise Poker still maintained their stranglehold on the online poker market. Over the next eight months, three key events happened that caused an upheaval in the online poker market that saw Paradise plummet from first to fourth place.

The first of these took place on March 30, 2003 - the first episode of the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel. Until 2002, poker on TV was an incredibly dull event. The only regularly broadcast event was the World Series of Poker, and until 2002 it was broadcast without hole card cameras. For the 2002 WSOP, ESPN employed very limited card cameras that were a huge burden on dealers. There was a single camera, mounted under the table to the left of the dealer, and a glass surface on which the dealer could place the cards. Not every hand was recorded in this way, only 'key' hands.

The World Poker Tour licensed some technology originally developed by Henry Orenstein, an inventor and poker player who went on to produce the Poker SuperStars Invitational Tournament and High Stakes Poker. (Henry is an interesting character with a pretty amazing history - he was a Holocaust survivor who was also the inventor of Transformer toys and held over 100 patents; he also won a WSOP bracelet in 1996.) Unlike Orenstein's original invention, the WPT used lipstick cameras - tiny cameras mounted at each player's seat that allowed 100% of the action at TV tables to be captured.

The WPT launched its first season with events at 9 casinos (the Bellagio had two events) and a special event for PartyPoker (on a cruise ship). The hosts of the WPT were (and still are) Mike Sexton and Vince van Patten; Sexton performed double duty as the online and live host for PartyPoker. PartyPoker initiated the second key event in Paradise's downfall - they took a substantial risk by becoming the first online poker site to advertise on television. So during the first WPT broadcast, viewers saw Mike Sexton doing WPT commentary during the show, and then saw PartyPoker ads featuring Sexton during commercial breaks.

(Interesting side note: PartyPoker's event in 2003, won by Kathy Liebert, was the only limit hold 'em event ever broadcast on the WPT.)

The effect was almost instantaneous. In the period from March to July, PartyPoker took off and left Paradise in the dust. PokerStars benefited from this early boom, as did UltimateBet, because we all offered massive MTTs that gave players a shot at big money for a very small investment. By the time the smoke cleared a few months later, PartyPoker was #1, UltimateBet was #2 and PokerStars was #3, although both UB and PokerStars were far behind PartyPoker. Paradise was #4 and sinking.

Then the real boom happened. Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP in May 2003, but the TV broadcast wasn't until August - back then, ESPN took their time in post-production, unlike today, when the WSOP Main Event broadcast starts just a few days after play is suspended for the November Nine. By that time, I had realized that PokerStars needed to be advertising on TV, as well (my biggest mistake at PokerStars was not doing this earlier). We crammed a four-commercial shoot into three days, producing perhaps the world's worst TV spots, and starting running them on both the World Poker Tour and the WSOP.

The combined effect of our TV ads, plus Moneymaker's win (and not incidentally, the massive exposure we got when Moneymaker eliminated Humberto Brenes and accidentally danced the PokerStars logo in front of the cameras), was immediate and huge. We were suddenly in a virtual tie for second place, swapping with UltimateBet on a regular basis. And this was the third nail in Paradise's coffin.

Around this time, Paradise finally woke up and decided that there must be something to the multi-table tournament craze. But by that time, less than six months after relinquishing their lead, Paradise was an also-ran. Every online poker site out there had MTTs. PokerStars and UB were focusing on improving the player experience, adding features and improving the software's stability and resilience. PartyPoker was plagued with software issues as a result of their unexpected and sudden success, but their sheer numbers were enough to make players willing to put up with frequent freezes and crashes. 

Paradise was forced to dedicate major resources to developing MTTs rather than improving their software, and had to do this in what was, for them, a shrinking market. Their fall from grace was nothing short of astounding, even for those of us who watched it happen in real time. 

Behemoths like Paradise don't typically go down easily, but in the blink of an eye, they went from 80% market share to an estimated 10% from March 2003 to September 2003. This set the stage for a series of epic battles among the new giants that had PartyPoker on top until the stunning passage events of the fall of 2006, which once again shook the top of the online poker tree.