Thursday, June 12, 2014

Lee Jones and the Switch of Doom


During my tenure at PokerStars, the four questions I was asked most often were:
  1. Is there a cashout curse?
  2. Is the software random?
  3. Can you see my cards?
  4. Is there a doom switch?
Of course, these questions generally didn't take exactly these forms - they were generally expressed as facts ("Yeah, I'm running really bad on RiverStars right now because I just cashed out, but that will get better in a week or so.").

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I have a great deal of respect and affection for PokerStars, even though I left the company more than seven years ago. But I suspect that you also realize that I shoot pretty straight. And since, as they say in Texas, I don't have a dog in this hunt, you should assume that the following is a mostly unbiased assessment.

Is there a cashout curse?
I definitely understand why players have come to believe this. The assumption behind the notion of a cashout curse is that online sites want to discourage players from cashing out. Using this type of indirect negative feedback could have nothing but disastrous results for us.

The two possible outcomes if we did rig the software in this way are (1) players wouldn't realize that they were being discouraged, in which case they would just decide that they were running bad, the software was rigged or (rarely) that they couldn't beat the game, or (2) players would realize that there was a 'curse,' in which case the more diligent players would start tracking it seriously, giving them evidence they could provide to the community at large.

My experience is that recreational players tend to play considerably looser once they have money in their accounts, particularly if it got there suddenly (like a big tournament win). As an example, a guy who plays small stakes cash and tournaments, who is used to having $100-300 in his account, plays the $10 rebuy tournament and wins $5,000. Most don't cash out right away; they may play bigger, or play more games, or play looser, or a combination of all of those things. Then he decides to cash out $4,000, but he doesn't revert to his prior style of play immediately. If he's a typical recreational player, he has a negative expectation, and that -EV is amplified by the fact that he's effectively playing bigger.

Verdict: No cashout curse.

Is the software random?
We struggled with this one from day one, as all online poker sites have. I've heard hundreds of stories purporting to be definitive proof that [fill in site name here]'s random number generator (RNG) isn't random, or that boards are somehow being rigged.

The usual reason I hear for the alleged lack of randomness is rake churn. It's better for [site] to have all players win roughly the same percentage of the time. The result is that all of the money circulates, but it generates more rake as it's circulating. So it's in [site]'s best interest to make sure that all players win and lose about the same amount, so the only negative liquidity is rake. The reasoning is wrong but sound, which makes the argument considerably harder to refute.

Here's the big problem with this (also with most of the other alleged means of rigging games): either (1) the software would all have to be written by Isai Scheinberg himself, (2) PokerStars would have to pay its programmers $10 million/year to keep the secret or (3) they'd have to have them all killed immediately after the code was finished. This is the problem with any conspiracy theory: it's hard to keep a secret. I can't say it any better than this:
"Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead."
                                                              -Benjamin Franklin

One of my favorite stories related to this comes from one of my shifts in support. All PokerStars employees were required to take at least two hours of support shifts per week, a brilliant idea that really opened my eyes. I cherry-picked the questions I answered, and always looked for the ones with topics like "Got my AA cracked for the 20th time." We heard things like this so often that the programmers added a tool to the back-end system, allowing a support person to enter any hand and see the player's last n results with that hand. For example, I could specify that I wanted to see a player's last 20 hands where he started with AA.

The email, which I saved, said:
Dear Fuckstars, 
I just lost my 23rd straight hand with AA and you can stick your fucking rigged piece of shit site up your cheating fucking assholes. I also lost 12 straight flips and 6 hands in a row with AK vs A and some turd. I don't know how the fuck you guys stay in business, but you can suck my dick.
While I wasn't going to act on his suggestion, I did decide to take this particular support request. Here are his results on the preceding 23 hands in which he had AA:

Won: 18
Lost: 4
Tied: 1

That put his win rate with AA at 78%, which is pretty damn good. Oddly, his 18 wins were consecutive - meaning that he had just lost four times in a row (the tie was the last hand). That explained the tone - those four losses became amplified, and in fairness to him, the last one was excruciatingly ugly (he flopped a set vs. TT, but the board ran out four flush cards). The tie was similar - AA vs. JJ, the board ran out five cards of a suit neither had.

I examined each hand to see if there was anything specific I should mention, and I did find one fun hand in a $1-2 NLHE cash game: he had three-bet preflop and got called with two black aces. His opponent check-raised him on a flop of 678 of hearts, he reraised and the guy jammed almost $300 into a pot of less than $100. Our AA player called and found he was looking at Kh Qh, making him about a 32:1 dog. But the board ran out 8s 8c and he won; of course, he didn't mention that hand in his email. I never checked, but I suspect that the holder of the Kh Qh probably sent us a different excoriating email.

I sent him a very detailed analysis of his last 23 AA hands. Just for kicks, I also ran his last 23 KK hands. Not a whole lot there, except that he was up against AA in two of them, and managed to win them both, once flopping quads and once flopping a flush draw that came in. I mentioned this to one of our support supervisors, who said, "You'll never hear from him again, and he'll keep playing." She was right on both accounts.

On a related matter, on more than one occasion, we submitted large numbers of hands to a third party for analysis as to randomness. We're talking tens of millions of hands here, and in each case, the result was the same: there was no evidence of the hands being anything other than entirely random. And contrary to Sheldon Adelson's contention to the contrary, random number generators are able to randomize a deck of cards far better than a live dealer.

Verdict: Yes, the software is random.

Can you see my cards?
This is a tough one, and I was tempted not to even approach it. I can only answer this for PokerStars, and the answer is no. At Isai's explicit instruction, the programmers made certain that no one could see cards while hands were in progress. The tools the support team used relied on what was committed to the database, and hands weren't committed to the database until the hand was completed. To be completely honest, though, I've seen programmers do some stunning stuff over the years, so it would be disingenuous for me to say it's impossible.

The counterexample to this is UltimateBet, which was involved in the most well-publicized cheating scandal in the short history of online poker. As the story goes, their programmers created some 'superuser' accounts in the development stage so they could observe hands playing out in real time. These accounts were disabled but never fully removed from the system, and at least one of them was used by various nefarious types in the clumsiest cheating effort imaginable. So while I can speak to how PokerStars dealt with this, there's no question that there is at least some risk, particularly at sites with less to lose than PokerStars.

Verdict: On PokerStars, no one can see your cards.

Is there a doom switch?
Every time I heard this, I imagined Lee Jones in a giant, Willy Wonka-type construct, with a huge green switch, wearing a headset and awaiting instructions about who to hose. This is, in reality, the same question as "Is there a cashout curse," although it's a little more personal. Poker players need to find a reason why they're losing. The players who blame the dealer when they play live are the players who blame the software when they play online. No, Victoria, there's no doom switch, although I think Lee in a velvet coat with a giant lever in his hand is an awe-worthy image.

                                 That's Lee with the hat.

Verdict: No, there's no doom switch.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A few more stories from the felt

I realized after my last post that I had suggested previously that I'd tell a Dave Foley story, and forgot. Here's that one and a few other poker/gambling stories:

Commerce Casino, February 2004
By February, 2004, Sharon was tearing up pretty much every game and tournament she played. After a huge showing at the WSOP 2003 (no cashes, but massive returns in smaller tournaments, side games and satellites), she posted nine consecutive months of profitable play, mostly in cash games at The Hustler and Hollywood Park. She was also killing online poker, mostly playing nosebleed stakes on UltimateBet. 

In February 2004, Sharon played in a satellite on PartyPoker, attempting to win a seat in the World Poker Tour $25,000 Main Event. After an epic struggle, Sharon won the satellite. As relative newcomers to the World Poker Tour (PokerStars had just conducted our first WPT event a few weeks earlier), neither of us realized that every player who buys into or wins a satellite into the WPT Main Event is invited to play in the WPT Celebrity Invitational Tournament, a $200,000 freeroll with an entertaining blend of celebrity dead money and professional poker players. 

About 15 minutes after Sharon won, our phone rang. It was 2:00a, a time that might be shocking for others to receive a phone call, but we're poker players. It was Linda Johnson, often called the "First Lady of Poker" (a misnomer - first ladies are typically standing next to the big star, whereas Linda was always the star on her own). Linda and I had played Omaha High/Low together over the years at the Mirage, but we had really gotten to know her during the PokerStars WPT cruise the prior month.

"I was sweating Sharon during this tournament," Linda said. "Please put her on so I can congratulate her." Turns out that she had more than congratulations - the Celebrity Invitational was the following day, and Linda was calling to invite Sharon to play. 

I'll write more about the Invitational itself another time. Suffice to say for now that Sharon had both a great time and an impressive run. I couldn't stand to watch, so my friends/coworkers Lee Jones and Rich Korbin went out for dinner at a nearby steakhouse. When we returned, the ten tables we had left were pared down to two 6-handed tables. Sharon had Dave Foley to her immediate left, and was in a paroxysm of hysterical laughter when I arrived. 

"Oh my God, he is the funniest person on the planet," Sharon whispered to me as the next hand was dealt. Sharon folded, Foley raised and only Antonio Esfandiari called from the big blind.

The flop came (I have no recollection of the cards), Esfandiari checked and Foley made a sizable bet. Esfandiari called, and the turn card was delivered.

Esfandiari checked again, and this time Foley went all in, a huge overbet to the pot. Esfandiari went deep into the tank for what seemed like two or three minutes (eons at the poker table). He finally did what he always does in these situations - he tried to get his opponent to talk. 

After a few minutes of this, Foley, who was quite drunk, stood up, spread his hands in a gesture of supplication and said, "Don't bother trying to pick something up on me. I'm an idiot."

Esfandiari folded.

The Mirage, September 1997
I had made trips to Las Vegas pretty regularly starting in mid-1996, visiting a woman I was dating there, and then going just to have fun and play poker. I had played some Omaha High-Low over the years, but was far from being even a respectable player - I still really had no idea what a good starting hand was. That may explain the following hand, which I'll charitably describe as "despicable."

Back in 1997, The Mirage was at the very center of poker in the US - that's where everyone played when they went to Las Vegas, and it's where all of the big boys played. There was a railed-off area in the corner with a few tables where there was always a 200-400 or higher game going.

I had been doing quite well in my consulting business, and was playing 10-20 to 20-40 limit hold 'em pretty regularly (also doing well). I had hoped to play at those limits, but the lists were 30 or more names deep for every game up to 80-160. Just as I was considering going elsewhere, I heard an announcement: "Seat open, 15-30 Omaha High Low." I (thought I) knew how to play that game. I called "lock it up," headed for the table and bought in for $1,000, which looked about right based on the rest of the stacks. The dealer informed me that the game had a 2/3 kill (meaning that the stakes went to 25-50 on the next hand if a player scooped the entire pot).

The game appeared to be driven by a few super-aggressive locals, who regularly raised and reraised. I didn't realize at the time that the rest of the seats were occupied by crazy, drunken marginal players who were there mostly to gamble it up and consume as many free drinks as possible. I blame them for what happened next.

I won a few hands in my first round, and was up to about $1,500 when this hand developed. I was in the big blind, and by the time the action came back to me, it was capped (four raises had already been put in). Someone had scooped the previous hand, so this was a kill pot, and all nine other players were involved. It was about to cost me $100 just to see the flop, but it was clear that everyone was calling all bets, so the pot would be $1,250, offering me a very nice price. I called with 7d 7h 8d 8h, a hand that any sane Omaha High Low player would toss in the muck for a single raise, although I think I could still defend my play to this point.

The flop came a very interesting 9h 9d Td. I had flopped an open-ended straight flush draw. The small blind and I checked, someone bet, and by the time the action was back on me it had been capped once again - and everyone was still in. It was going to cost me $125, but there was now $2,500 in the pot, meaning that I was getting 20:1 odds to make my draw. I was a 22:1 underdog to make a straight flush on the next card, so I wasn't exactly getting the right price to make the call, but I rationalized a few reasons for doing so: (1) I'd get some considerable action if I did hit my hand, and (2) I really, really wanted to play. There's also the fact that I was pot-blind at the absurd size of the pot. The game was played with $5 chips, and there was already the equivalent of five full racks of chips in the pot. I called.

The turn was the somewhat surprising Th. I now had two straight flush draws. The action went pretty much the same way, although when it was my turn to act, there were only four players remaining besides me. There was now about $3,500 in the pot and it would cost me $250 to call. I was an 11:1 dog, but the pot was laying me 14:1, and besides, holy shit, there was a lot of money in the pot. I called.

The river was the incredibly beautiful 6d, giving me the nut straight flush. I bet, and almost immediately the guy to my left, who had his chips stacked in gigantic towers of at least 50 chips each, knocked most of them over. Someone jokingly said that it seemed like an awfully big raise. He did, in fact, raise, as did the next guy. I dutifully put in the fourth bet, and now, for the first time, both of the other players just called. I proudly tabled my hand and said "Straight flush."

I wish I had words to describe the next few seconds. The table, previously raucous, went deadly silent. The chip tower guy to my left didn't move a muscle, but I saw his jaw drop a little. The guy to his left said, "Don't say a word. I have you beat, too." 

Chip tower guy said, "Oh yeah? Can you beat quad nines. douchebag?" and tabled 99xx for flopped quads.

The guy to his left didn't say anything, but quietly showed pocket tens for a flopped full house and one-outer quads on the turn.

The dealer shoved me the pot, but "shoved" doesn't really describe it. By this time, the pot had swelled to nearly $5,000, ten racks of red chips. I pushed a stack, $100, to the dealer. As I did, the player to my right, who had been in the small blind, said, "You had less outs than you think." He then told me that he had folded Jd Qd - he had also flopped a straight flush draw, but I had one of his cards and he had one of mine.

OK, it was ugly. I'll still take it.

Four Queens, May 2004
Pai Gow has long been one of my favorite casino table games. It's an easy, fun game, and there is almost no amount of alcohol that can make you play badly - if you don't know what to do, you can just put your hand down face up and the dealer will tell you how the house plays it.

In case you don't know the game, here's a simple summary: you are dealt seven cards, and you split the cards into a five card poker hand and a two card poker hand. The two card hand is composed only of high cards and pairs (no straights, flushes, etc.). The only rule is that your five card hand must outrank your two card hand. To win, you must win both hands; to lose, you must lose both. The house wins ties, so if you lose one and tie one, you lose.

In most casinos, there is an additional bet you can make called the Fortune Bonus. If you make any hand higher than two pair, you are paid odds on the Fortune Bonus hand. The odds aren't very high for most hands, but there are some that pay nicely.

Sharon has never shared my affection for the game, but if she ever had any positive thoughts about Pai Gow, this hand cured her. We were in the middle of the World Series of Poker, and had decided to take a night and have dinner and some fun. We went to Hugo's Cellar for dinner, our favorite restaurant in Las Vegas to this day. We had a few bottles of wine with some friends, and a few drinks, and decided to play Pai Gow.

On one of our first hands, Sharon was dealt a hand that I have only seen once before - quads and a pair of Aces. The complete hand was 9999AAK. This hand is an absolute monster in Pai Gow - being dealt quads is rare enough, but being dealt the best possible 'front' (two card) hand along with it is stunning. It's a no-lose hand...almost. There was a lot of chatter at the table about what an amazing hand it was. I have absolutely no recollection of my hand.

After everyone had a chance to admire the beauty of this stunning hand, the dealer turned over her cards. The 'window' card (the first one you see) was the Joker, which isn't good - it can be used as an Ace, or to complete any straight or flush. When she spread the rest of the cards, they were all red, and it took me a few seconds to work out what she had - in fact, it took her a few, as well. Not only were they all red, but they were all hearts, including an Ace. She didn't touch the cards for a minute as we all reordered them in our heads. 

Sharon was the first person at the table to work out what had happened. "You can't be fucking serious," she said. The dealer tentatively started rearranging the cards. The pit boss came over to watch as she moved the Ah and the joker to the top (front hand) and rearranged the rest of the hearts. At first, it just looked like an ugly tie for Sharon - Sharon won the back hand with quads over a flush, and the dealer won the front hand with AA vs AA. But as the dealer rearranged the back cards in order, we all realized what Sharon had seen immediately - the dealer had an even more shocking eight-high straight flush plus AA.

The worst part of this story: not all casinos had implemented the Fortune Bonus bet yet (almost all have now), and the Four Queens was one of the holdouts. Sharon lost the hand straight-up with one of the best hands you can be dealt in this game.

It was almost five years before Sharon played another hand of Pai Gow.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Odd stuff in poker and elsewhere

First, if you read this blog regularly you know that I have really been trying to get into the habit of posting at least weekly. In fact, I created a penalty for myself - anyone who catches me going more than a week gets to donate $100 of my money to the charity of their choice. This worked for quite a few months, and then the run-up to the World Series of Poker started. This has cost me $300 so far, and since it's likely to get worse as the WSOP goes on, I'm temporarily calling off the $100 penalty, so as not to have to go on food stamps before the summer ends.

As a further excuse for this past two weeks, I have played in 4 WSOP events - the Casino Emloyees $500 event, a $1,500 NLHE, the $1,500 Pot Limit Hold 'em and the Seniors event. The first two were a complete bust - I didn't make it to the dinner break in either. I felt only a tiny bit better about the $1,500 NLHE event because I had nearly freerolled into it - I won a seat on

After that event, I had no intention of playing anything else other than the Seniors event, which I think is the best value at the WSOP if you're 50+. But then I won ANOTHER seat on into my very favorite game, Pot Limit Hold 'em. And not only did I go deep, but I made my first final table ever at the WSOP. I finished 6th for just under $29,000, which is good in any case but terrific for a $63 investment. The final table was the most fun I've ever had playing poker - if you watched the video stream, you probably noticed that I had my hand over my mouth most of the time. That was to hide the giant grin that was there throughout. I even had a terrific surprise - in addition to the 30 or so people railing me from the grandstands, Sharon surprised me and showed up, even though she had told me the night before that she wasn't coming (which was actually my suggestion). 

Less than 24 hours after that final table, I started the Seniors event. I went deep there, as well, finishing 160th for just under $3,000. I should have gone deeper, but that will wait for another day. My friend Dennis Phillips went VERY deep, finishing 5th for $154,000. And a very old friend from my Hollywood Park days, David Tran, also made the final table, finishing just behind Dennis in 6th. David and I were at the same table for most of Day 1, and I came very close to busting him, so I feel like I had some part in his outstanding finish - I way underbet a full house on the river, underestimating the strength of his hand. I had TT on a T5232 board, and it turned out that he had KK. My river bet was about 1/3 of the pot, and he later told me that he would have called off his whole stack.

And now on to the promised poker/gambling weirdness discussion.

Commerce Casino, February 2004
The poker boom was in full swing by the time the Commerce Casino's annual LA Poker Classic started in early February 2004. Two things were obvious at this point - (1) poker was huge and about to be much bigger, and (2) celebrities had discovered poker. 

On a typical day at the Commerce, the Bicycle Club, Hollywood Park and the Hustler, it wasn't unusual to see Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire, Norm Macdonald, Sam Simon (co-creator of "The Simpsons"), James Woods and a host of other celebs playing anywhere between very small and very big stakes. On this particular day, I was on the board waiting for a $5-10 No Limit Hold 'em game when they started a must-move game (a 'feeder' game for the established games - if they call you for the established game, you're forced to move). The game started short-handed - there were five of us, including Tobey Maguire.

I had played with Tobey before, and found him particularly thoughtful and conservative, given that the total amount of money on the table in this game was roughly 0.005% of his paycheck for his last movie. We had been playing for about 30 minutes when the following hand came up.

I was in the big blind, and Tobey was to my immediate left. He raised, everyone else folded and I looked down to find a hand nicknamed "presto" - pocket fives. I called and the flop came down just as I had hoped - Q85. I checked, he bet and I called. I checked the turn, hoping to get a check-raise in, and fortunately for me, he bet again. I put in a medium-sized raise, the same size raise I would make in any case (real hand or bluff). 

At this point, Tobey went into the tank for a very long time, so long that he apologized to the rest of the table for taking so long. I realized at this point that he had a real hand, either AA or KK, and was trying to work out whether i had flopped a set on him. After what had to be three or four minutes, eons at the poker table, he flipped up AA, folded and tapped the table (poker players' way of saying "nice hand").

Just to be clear here, the amount of my raise was something like $500, an amount of money that he might have set on fire without remembering he had done so. I was surprised and impressed.

Epilogue: Two years later, I formally met Tobey when Nolan Dalla and I were attempting to negotiate a deal to get him on Team PokerStars. After Nolan introduced us, he looked at me for a bit and said, "I know you. We've played together." I nodded, and mentioned that he had folded AA face up when I check-raised him.

His response: "I remember. You flopped a set on me."

MGM Grand, June 2006
The 2006 World Series of Poker was among the most surreal and absurd experiences of my life. The poker boom had gripped the US to the point where you couldn't really go anywhere without seeing it. The 7-11 around the corner from my house had an entire display dedicated just to chips and cards. My gas station sold WSOP shirts. And the World Poker Tour was everywhere.

We decided to be even more aggressive at PokerStars to make sure we had a stranglehold on WSOP entries. We had lost a bidding war for the WSOP felt to PartyPoker (another story), and needed our presence at the WSOP to be wide and deep. And it was - by the time the first hand was dealt, we had over 1,600 players in the event, about 18% of the field (see The Girl With the $16,000,000 Purse and other posts here for more details). 

All of this was managed by Sharon and a team of friends and family she brought to Las Vegas. The key people were Sharon's sister Marie, plus Shaena and Steve, two friends of ours who lived with us for the summer to help manage the massive amount of money and swag. Everyone was working 16-18 hours a day, and by the time early July rolled around, we all needed a break. Sharon suggested dinner and gambling somewhere away from the Rio, and we ended up at the MGM Grand.

I'm not sure exactly how we decided what to play, but we ended up at a Let It Ride table. By the time we got there, we were all pretty toasted, making lots of noise and generally disturbing the peace of everyone around us. I was playing much bigger at this game than I usually did - $25 a spot. 

Short explanation if you don't already know the game - the object of the game is to make at least a pair of tens. You aren't competing against the house or other players - if you make at least a pair of tens, you win. But if you make something bigger, you win more - up to a royal flush, which can pay as much as $100,000 when you're playing $25 a spot. You start with three cards, and have the option of removing one of your three $25 bets if you don't like your hand. The dealer exposes a card, then you can remove one more $25 bet if you want. The last $25 bet always stays.

On this hand, I started with a terrific hand for this game - TJQ, all diamonds. This is a perfect hand to 'let it ride' - that is, not to remove the first $25 bet. I did. The dealer then exposed the stunningly beautiful King of diamonds.

Summary: I now have a 1 in 48 chance to win about $100,000. The three $25 bets pay 1,000:1 for a royal flush, plus a bonus bet and a few other payoffs. But in addition, I also have a 1 in 48 chance to hit the 9 of diamonds for a straight flush (200:1 payoff), a 7 in 48 chance to make a flush (8:1 payoff), a 6 in 48 chance to make a straight (5:1) and a 12 in 48 chance to make a pair for even money. Total: 27 of the remaining 48 cards pay me something.

The dealer, who was a lot of fun and had been playing along with our obnoxious behavior, decided to have some fun himself. Instead of turning up the last card, he slipped the cut card under it and then turned it over, so the cut card completely obscured the final card. He then pulled it down ever so slowly. At first, I saw a red, pointy-tipped card - there are only 4 cards in the deck that look like that (red 4s and red Aces). As he pulled it down a little further, we all realized it was a red Ace.

Now there was some real excitement at the table. The last card could only be either the Ace of hearts (paying a paltry 5:1 plus a few bonuses, or around $600 total) or the Ace of diamonds, the monster card that would net me nearly $100,000. The dealer called a floorman over to watch - since he had done something that was not quite by the book, he didn't want to have the hand disqualified. He told the floorman what had happened and the floorman nodded, so all appeared to be OK.

The dealer then started slipping the cut card sideways. If you're a poker player, you know that you can distinguish a heart from a diamond with only a tiny speck of the card exposed - if there's a point, it's a diamond. He squeezed a millimeter at a time. No point. Another millimeter, still nothing. Finally, he exposed enough of the card that we could all see that it was, alas, the Ace of hearts and not diamonds. By this time a crowd had formed (this whole thing took quite a while), and everyone sighed their disappointment.

But the story's not over. The dealer then said, "Let's see where it was," and turned over and spread the deck. After a minute of looking, we all realized the same thing - there was no Ace of diamonds in the deck.

We all just sat there, looking, sure we had missed it. Finally I realized what had happened, and pointed to the discard tray. The game is dealt with a shuffler, which deals three cards at a time. But the game calls for only two cards to be dealt to the board, so the dealer discards one of them. The three cards in the board hand were A of hearts, A of diamonds and K of diamonds. It was that close.

The result was far from what we wanted, but it created a lasting moment of excitement.