Glas Vegas

Glas Vegas

I played my first live tournament in early 2005. My memory of the detail, like a block of cheese left on a radiator, is extremely fuzzy. I think the buy in was £20, but it may have been £10. I recall a sandwich platter provided at the break but it could just as easily have been a Chinese buffet. I remember trebling up with kings twice in two hands but it’s more likely that I was drunk and only did it once.

I do have one very clear memory of the tournament which is that I cashed. I finished sixth in a field of over 100 players and took home £138. I was so happy about making the money in my first live tourney that I kept the receipt pinned up on a corkboard in my kitchen, where it remained for at least a year until it was finally disintegrated by the grease, moisture and general detritus that somehow eminated from my cooker to the rest of the kitchen over that period.

I was reminiscing on my debut success while on the train to Glasgow for last week’s Unibet UK Tour as I hadn’t had a live cash for a while. I’ve picked up quite a few packages now, thanks to a consistent spell of running golden in UK Tour satellites, and I now have enough ammunition to fire repeated bullets at the events which, to date, have had all the success of a US airforce patrol carrying out manouveres over an allied position. I have a little secret that I’m going to let you in on; the last live cash I had was actually at that very tournament in early 2005. I hadn’t collected from a cash desk since my first casino visit twelve years ago and my Hendon Mob profile, if I had one, would be utterly devoid of flaggage.

Flaggage
The Hendon Mob website: 3D version
I must confess that there’s a certain disingenuity to my statement – I’m not a total donkey. I didn’t play any live poker at all for most of that barren period. I played a maximum of four live MTTs in 2005 and didn’t play another until January 2016, four months after I took up poker for the third time. Still, given that I harbour ambitions to turn professional in the not too distant future, the fact that John Paul II was the wearer of the official Pontic hat the last time I made the money is a troubling hole in my record. Not only that, I’ve fired roughly fifteen bullets at various events since January 2016 and haven’t even got close to a payout, let alone snaffled one. I may be running golden in the online satties but once it comes to live target tournaments I’m running distinctly brown.

As well as hoping that this leg of the tour would see the end of my winless streak, I was looking forward to the social aspect. These events have really come into their own since they began early last year and a thriving community has grown around the tour. It was nice to catch up with a number of familiar faces and to meet others I’d previously known only known as an online alias. The presence of a number of Unibet’s ambassadors provided an additional element too. They each carried a £100 bounty, were fun company at the tables and, in keeping with my utter inability run well in the live arena, almost every hand I played over the course of two days had me sitting out of position to at least one of them.

Bad Chewbacca
Ian Simpson, resting at home yesterday
I anticipated that ‘rivals’ Ian Simpson and David Lappin, both at my first table, would be opening very wide and I expected them to play a lot of pots against each other. Although I don’t think going up against the better players at the table is often likely to be a good strategy I figured that, even with David on my direct left, there could be some value spots to be had by puncturing their own meta-game with well timed moves. Unfortunately I spent the first few levels looking mostly at bottom 10% hands so found my plan scuppered. I also discovered, to my cost, that Ian had himself taken the highly profitable approach of opening extremely wide, never folding and being ahead on the river every time, propelling him to the chip lead at the end of the day.

In fairness, although he ran exceptionally well on day one, Ian deserves credit for some exceptional decision making. One successful call with third pair against a river bluff on the drawiest of boards was particularly noteworthy (or fishy if you agree with the remonstrations of the villain). For my part, I got myself into an extremely tricky spot in a 3 bet pot and went busto check-raise jamming Ad2d on a Ax5x5d4d board with little fold equity and not quite the right price to get the stack in.

Day 1b runbad began with my plans to arrive for the 4pm start of play thwarted at 1.15pm by the discovery that play actually started at 1pm. The notion of a nice lunch and a stroll around the city was quickly abandoned in favour of the distinctly non-GTO option of wolfing down a dry supermarket sandwich and flagging down a taxi in the pissing rain. I then found myself with an even worse table draw than on Day 1a, out of position against two cash game specialists, Unibet Open commentator David Vanderheyden on my direct left and international vest enthusiast Espen Uhlen Jørstad two seats further down. Parked directly between them was Neil Caterham, a man whose determination not to surrender his big blind is akin to the Red Army’s defence of Stalingrad.

Trotsky
Neil Caterham, rallying his chips to repel the incoming onslaught
Although it was a fun table to play at and I found enough spots to chip up nicely during the early levels, I lost chunks to David in a hand similar to the previous day’s exit fiasco then eventually went out in an awkward spot during the last hand of the re-entry period. UTG had lost a big pot and made it known that he was looking to double up or rebuy. He jammed about 15bb with A5s. I was UTG+1 and had AQo so had to jam my 29bb. Espen turned up with AKo so got his stack in too. There were plenty of Ks and 5s on the runout but not very many Qs. Not fancying my chances of running up my remaining 125 chips (1/4 of a BB at the next level) I forfeited them and re-entered.

It took me about fifteen minutes to identify that my new table was mostly soft, which was a relief. I also had a window of roughly 90 seconds to reflect on this information before being moved to another seat, which happened to be the exact seat that I’d busted from a little earlier. David and Espen remained (with the very solid Adrian ‘NMPFan’ now also on my right for good measure) but Neil had been eliminated, replaced by Willie Elliot, whom I haven’t played often but I know to be a very good player. I received no further luck when Willie was eliminated as Tim Bruneel, the Unibet Community’s resident ICM calculator, arrived with a 14bb stack to replace him. An up and down couple of levels thereafter terminated when I shoved 18bb with TT against an early position raise and a call. The initial raiser tabled AK and flopped an A to eliminate me as an also-ran and prompt yet another early visit to the bar.

With no Day 2 to look forward to, I was able to wind down by having a jaunt around Glasgow city centre with Chapess in a Chair then we had a couple of beers before returning for the real highlight of the weekend. For Chapess, the bar. For me, the honour and prestige that comes with playing the Unibet Community freeroll, kindly laid on by the Unibet team, and containing three tables full of the finest, and drunkest, Unibet staff, community members and ambassadors. The community games are always fun occasions and one of the more amusing dynamics, particularly now the ambassadors are in play, is identifying who is pretending that they don’t care about the outcome whilst hiding that they’re far too competitive to deliberately lose at anything. I’ll happily confess to being firmly amongst that number. It was clear that pretty much everybody else was too.

In contrast to the previous two days, where my game had been quite rusty, I felt that I played played pretty well this time around. I also ran ridiculously well which, if nothing else, is an important way to succeed in a poker tournament. The first hand that stood out was quite early when I 3-bet Marc Convey from the small blind with AKo, fired twice on a board of low cards and checked the river assuming that he would bet most of his own aces for value and would bluff a lot of non A-x holdings if I gave the impression that I could be giving up.  Marc duly obliged this time and I think I was fortunate enough to get the absolute maximum value from the hand.

I then folded myself almost to death, having to play the short-stack ninja game to reach the final table then winning a couple of flips to put myself back into contention. Given that the game was a turbo structure, the five-handed bubble lasted a stupidly long time, eventually bursting with Daiva Byrne in first place with about 30bb and myself second with about 20bb. Vinny Javad and Natalie ‘Mynona’ were third and fourth with about 9bb each.

Chapeau
Chapeau in a Chair and Baltic Blonde prepare for a heads-up epic of precisely one hand.
My second standout hand, for no other reason than I got paid, saw Daiva min-raise the button and Vinny and Natalie folded. Given the ICM considerations and the stack sizes I had to flat-call most of my playable range and with QTs it was a fairly simple decision. The flop of Q9Q was ideal as I was in perfect shape apart from the few combos where I’d be coolered. Expecting a c-bet in the vast majority of cases I opted to check-raise shove as a call from my stack size would look strong and a jam would get plenty of calls by weaker holdings as I’m repping a lot of TJ and 9x hands. Fortunately for me I got paid by AK, giving me a big enough stack to pretty much lock up the tournament.

The prize for winning the tournament was a €100 ticket for a UK Tour final satty and a €100 ticket for the €50k guaranteed special tournament to celebrate the dealing of Unibet’s half-billionth hand. There may be no trophies or Hendon Mob flags for community freeroll winners but I managed to spin the ticket for the €50k guaranteed tournament into a 6th place finish and €2,400 prize, which is a pretty good consolation for not cashing in the main event. It was also a very nice, gin infused way to spend a Sunday evening. Massive thanks must go to the organisers, the ambassadors and the usual UK Tour crowd for another top weekend and I’m already looking forward to bricking the next one.

 

The 38 Percenters

Obvious Mug

“Britain has had enough of experts.” claimed Michael Gove, the UK government minister and massive fucking shitehawk, during last year’s European Union referendum. Regardless of which way people voted, it seems that the gurning knacker was actually right. In hindsight, Gove was heralding the dawn of the era of fake news and we now find ourselves in a world where everybody believes whatever they like, regardless of whether the evidence supports it. We’re bombarded with so much polarised information that nobody can believe anything any more, including this blogpost that has been painstakingly written by a purple angel on a unicycle.

I thought that the poker world had largely avoided this phenomenon. There’s admittedly some pretty spurious advice out there but that’s to be expected as the game develops and older strategy becomes obsolete. There’s also a lot of rubbish talked by some poker players but that’s okay too because, like in all walks of life, plenty of people are just complete helmets.

Gove
Rubber faced gobshite
In fact, I had absolutely no idea that fake news existed in the poker world until last week when a friend uncovered the following gem tucked away in the Q&As of Party Poker’s official tournament strategy guide:

Q. It’s the middle stage of a tournament, pre-flop, and you are one of two chip leaders at the table (he’s a bit ahead of you – the other players don’t even come close). He moves all-in, but you have two aces. Do you call or fold?
A. Again, this is obvious. You fold, even though you’ve got the best hand. This player is the only one who can send you home, so if you call, you’re going to be out the tournament about 38% of the time. Better to pick off the less risky opponents first and go after the big money later.

On first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking this is wrong. Folding is wrong? Check. Surviving in an MTT when you have a low risk chance to accumulate a massive stack? Check. A holding that’s about 80% favourite against everything in the deck pre-flop will somehow see you go busto 38% of the time? What the hell? That’s on a similar level of wrongness as fucking your own sister.

Fortunately facts no longer matter in this ‘post-truth’ era. All claims can be opposed in print, no matter how flimsy the evidence for the counter claim. The internet is awash with articles making the most spurious arguments and whomever shouts the loudest is deemed to be the arbiter of truth. I’m therefore happy to concede that Party’s strategy advice is 100% correct and any disagreement can only be made as part of a deep and sinister media conspiracy.

Purple Unicycle
Half a bike
So it’s in that spirit that I present to you the Chap in a Chair guide to some of poker’s most common questions. If you want to succeed in the poker world and avoid being part of the 38% club then look no further than the following exclusive advice. Oh, and don’t forget to smile as you throw those pesky aces in the muck.

Q. I’ve never played live poker before. How should I prepare for my first visit to the casino?
A. You’re probably going to be very nervous if you’re playing live for the first time so your best option is to drink lots of beer before taking your seat. It’s difficult to tell how nervous you might be but you need to be as relaxed and confident as possible when facing your opponents. If you’re in doubt then order another one. As a rule, if you can see straight then you’re probably not in the zone. Why not try some tequila or sambuca chasers just to be on the safe side?

Q. How can I utilise tells at the poker table?
A. Even the most inexperienced poker players are now familiar with some poker tell theory so they’ll understand that when a player shows signs that they’re weak then they’re probably strong and when they look strong then they’re probably weak. Better players have to counter this so if an experienced player looks weak then it would be too obvious to be strong so could be likely to be weak, except that looking weak and being weak is so clearly weak in itself that he’s probably showing weakness to look weak against perceived strength. His holding is therefore likely to be strong. Or weak. Or somewhere inbetween. Before making your final decision, double check to ensure your opponent hasn’t simply had a stroke as this could be misleading.

Q. Why do the WSOP winners get bracelets?
A. This peculiar tradition began during the WSOP in 1975 when the organisers decided that the main event winner should be given a glamorous momento. The consensus was always that the winner would get an item of jewellery in addition to the cash but the decision to present a gold bracelet was an eleventh hour change to the original plan after eventual champion Doyle Brunson raised objections during the prize-giving ceremony when informed that Benny Binion was going to give him a pearl necklace.

Pace
Maths Management
Q. Pocket jacks are notoriously difficult. What’s the best way to play them?
A. Pace’s Law of Fish-Hooks, a theorem devised by poker supremo Norman Pace, proves mathematically that jacks can only ever win when they’re not supposed to. If you have jacks on a board of AK3 then you need to shovel the chips in as you’ll often be so far behind your opponent’s range that you’re a cert to win the pot. Equally, if you hold JJ on a board of J55 then just give up as your hand is effectively dead.

Q. Is professional poker as glamorous as it looks?
A. Absolutely. The heat and lights of the TV studios may look tiring and there’s nothing fun about the strain on your back when carrying huge piles of cash from the casino to the bank but it’s not all hard work. The real fun comes when you’re out on the road and living the high life in glamourous poker hotspots such as Walsall, Coventry and Luton. Poker players are a surefire hit with the opposite sex too. After all, what could be more attractive than obsessively studying maths followed by long hours of Vitamin D deprivation in an underground card room?

Q. What’s the biggest difference between live poker and online poker?
A. Trousers

This solid advice will be invaluable to you in future so bookmark the page for future reference. When you do inevitably take down a huge score off the back of this advice then please get in touch as my uncle is a Nigerian prince who will have an investment opportunity for you in return for a one off deposit to clear his locked up funds.

Work & Play

copenhagen

“As you’re here I take it that you’re not £50,000 richer.”

“Yep.”

“Did you win anything at all?”

“Did I bollocks.”

“Well, enjoy looking at spreadsheets for the next eight hours.”

And so began another long shift at the coalface of Excel.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Copenhagen as I’d won a package to the Unibet Open. The event took place at the same time as the EPT Barcelona, where Pokerstars had introduced a number of controversial changes, and Dara O’Kearney wrote an opinion piece which made quite a few waves within the poker community. I do have ambitions to become professional but I’m still effectively a lower stakes recreational player and, as I was playing a live tournament at the same time as it was all going off in Iberia, I thought it might be useful to put forward my own perspective as soon as I could.

So here I am, well over a fortnight later, striking not so much when the iron’s hot as much as striking while the iron’s cooled to a temperature you’d happily bathe a child in. Maybe it hasn’t yet cooled enough to be happpy bathing your own child but certainly enough for the over-indulged whiny little shits that you occasionally encounter on public transport and without risk of manslaughter charges if it all goes wrong.

The reason for the delay is because of an extremely annoying thing called work. It’s a very time consuming activity that the vast majority of recreational players undertake in order to avoid things like malnutrition, homelessness and grim death. For the professional, poker is their version of the ‘day job’ that everybody else does. For the majority of recs poker is a desired outlet away from the several hours a day getting paid for dealing with other people’s shit. Once the average person factors in things like cooking, cleaning, poker, sleeping, bouts of furious masturbation, washing and self-loathing weeping there’s not really much room left for self-indulgent scribblers like myself to write and publish bollocks like this. In short, most people’s time is a bloody precious commodity.

office
How it works: The Office
I took two days off work to go to Copenhagen and I had to fight for them. It would have been three days but for the fact that the Monday was a UK public holiday. My satellite win for the Unibet Open was a couple of weeks before the event and, as a public sector employee working in a large office, I wasn’t surprised when I rocked up at work to find that the leave allocation for a holiday weekend in summer at the height of the school holidays had already been taken. I’ve long since earmarked my work as the sort of place where creativity and imagination go to die but I’m fortunate that my own line management aren’t the kind of petty, smallminded arseholes who seem to be so prevalent in large offices; they were happy that the world wouldn’t collapse without me so they granted the time off. That said, I though I’d fare better by telling them that that I’d won a holiday worth €2,000 rather than use an opening gambit along the lines of, “I need to go to Denmark to play cards.” At the time it felt like I was spinning a bit of a line but, on reflection, it was probably the more accurate statement.

In their rush to pull in as much money as possible through live events it seems that Stars have forgotten that recreational players at tournaments are essentially day-jobbers on a jolly where they also play poker. An employee’s paid leave is the most precious time available so when we choose to take time off work, often away from our loved ones, we want a big experience. As appealing as the prospect of winning a lot of money at cards may be, simply having the opportunity to sit in a casino for hours on end just doesn’t meet the expectations. Once we’ve gone skipping out of work to attend an event we’re very definitely on holiday and I think I speak for the majority of non pros when I say we want – nay, demand – a bloody good time in return. It’s the reason people start sinking pints in airports at 6am. Poker is, of course, the central theme but the poker package is nothing without the garnish of high end accommodation, bags of freebies, player parties and affordable side events. Once you start stripping down the fun stuff  you’re simply left with a poker tournament and we don’t need to book flights for that – there are plenty of them on the internet.

I remember seeing online satellites to a live Caribbean event when I started playing poker a million years ago and I was immediately intrigued. The chance to play poker for big money is one thing but the experience of doing it in an exotic location and staying in a flash hotel? Well, that would be a fantastic way to spend a few days and the chance of a deep run and life changing cash woud be brilliant in addition. Somebody with a better memory than me can confirm whether I’m right or wrong but I seem to remember sites arranging flights on your behalf too.

A glance at the current Stars lobbies for live satellites shows a lot of seat only arrangements or seat plus barely enough cash to cover the flights with. I’ll be the first to admit that playing for a fancy hotel and a load of ‘stuff’ may not be the most practical approach to cost but, as a prospective holidaymaker, a seat in a tourney with accommodation costs coming out of my own pocket reduces the appeal drastically. I wrote in my last blog about how the live game is to be celebrated on its own merits but as it’s not usually the most optimal option for either pros or recs, large events need to be about so much more than poker alone.

party
Include fun stuff
I’m not going to criticise Stars for attempting to innovate. I actually quite like the idea of bringing the regional events under one umbrella. It seems like a sensible, universal rebranding exercise and if it creates the opportunity for a broad satellite system then that’s good with me.  Given the benefit of the doubt maybe they’ve also been unlucky with the decision to implement a 20% payout structure. Broader payouts could well have proven popular, particularly amongst recs, and as a satellite player with a comparitively piddling bankroll I wouldn’t personally be sniffy about taking $5,000 home with me. I’m inclined to agree that it’s generally a bad idea though, almost like the poker equivalent of a 0-0 draw, and hopefully it will be consigned to the bin.

On the other hand it’s impossible to see why a 10am start would be met with anything but hostility. If the entire audience is split between recs on holiday and poker pros then there can be no winners. Holidaymakers tend to dislike 10am starts in general and I’d wager most poker pros would need three hours of instructional videos and a number crunching app just to understand what 10am actually is. The drive for profit is understandable but the Stars approach not only seems to completely misunderstand the needs of its customers but they seem to have reached a stage where every move they make is (usually correctly) met with utter cynicism. The 20% payout and the 10am start may well have worked under other circumstances but such is the lack of trust in the Stars brand these days that people have read between the lines and concluded that earlier starts and more payouts mean earlier bustouts and therefore more players in other events and more rake to be, well, raked in.

Fortunately Stars appear to be an exception to the rule and their dominance of the industry magnifies the attention they receive. As Dara himself points out there are a number of enjoyable and well run events out there and I was fortunate enough to be at one. I busted early in the tournament thanks to a fairly unremarkable KK v AA situation but this gave me the opportunity to spend an exceptional weekend in Denmark with my wife. From the very beginning we were made welcome by the terrific Unibet staff and, like in Malta for the previous Unibet Open, there were plenty of activities like five-a-side football going on for those who’d busted the main event. There were also free drinks. I really can’t ever underestimate the importance of free drinks.

I was lucky. Other people have crap bosses. Other workplaces wouldn’t be able to afford to give extra people the time off. I’ll happily acknowledge that the logistics of arranging tournaments on these scales must be very complicated but I think there’s a point to be made about the problems that recs encounter and the attitudes of poker companies when people do run into trouble. It’s all good and well for a poker company to say that you must be able to play the target event but those in normal jobs are in Catch 22 situations where it’s wasteful to book time off if they haven’t won a package but if they do win one then they may not be able to get the time off to attend. That’s not a viable scenario for anybody who has spent time and money working their way through a satellite system.

fuck-off
Expected Responses
Had I been unable to take time off work I have absolutely no doubt that Unibet would have allowed me to play the next event instead if I’d asked, even though it falls outside their terms and conditions. Given the tales I’ve read of inflexibility even when it comes to which day 1s people play, I’d fully expect Stars’ response to an identical request would be to instruct me to take my head for a great big runny shite. To put it a slightly different way, Unibet care about their players as they seem to appreciate that they’re the most important part of the poker ecosystem. Stars, like so many large organisations, seem to have reached a stage where their only interest is maximising short term profit and everything else is an irrelevance. They’re picking the fruits but they’ve forgotten that they need to feed the plant if they want more harvests. I don’t know how long it will take but I think their short-sightedness will kill them.

Satelliting to tournaments with high buy-ins is about so much more than poker when you’re one of the little people. Poker companies highlight big winners to create a glitzy image. If they’re going to create the image then they need to create the reality for the wannabes when they’re lucky enough to get a golden ticket, even if it’s a very obvious facade. Two weeks ago I returned to the office as a jet-setting, high-rolling, international poker player. It’s all nonsense but it was a fun experience and the time on the felt was only a small part of that.

If it were solely about the prospect of the outside chance of a big payday then I’d simply sit at home in my undercrackers and play the Sunday Million, perhaps even the Sunday Storm. I love live poker but if you’re asking me to travel half the length of a continent to get there then give me the provision for free booze, a plush hotel and a fancy-pants location. If not then bollocks to it, I’ll save my annual leave for some proper fun and stick to the online grind.

Open Season

Satellite

Sunday morning. Above a pub in Brighton.

I wearily drag my head from my pillow after four and a half hours of fitful sleep squeezed into one of three bunks wedged into a tiny dorm as humid as the Amazon and with the odour of Satan’s arsecrack. I turn yesterday’s underpants inside out and shuffle into them, muttering under my breath about the leaking shower cubicle that submerged the clothes had I intended to wear today but which now lie, in a shapeless, soggy mess, under the bed – a bed that couldn’t have been less comfortable if the mattress had been made from wasps. I hastily throw my things into my bag, which reports a damp squelch as they land, and shuffle along several streets until I reach the car, which needs to be moved before traffic wardens arrive. With 90 seconds to spare and wardens already visible at the top of the street, I pull away and wind my way to the Marina for day two of the Unibet UK Tour, arriving with time to spare before the start of play. Five hours and fifty minutes before the start of play to be precise.

I spend several hours shuffling around supermarkets, perusing tat at car boot sales, eating bad food and, more enjoyably, playing an impromptu game of outdoor table-tennis with Jonny, my travelling companion. I soon discover that Jonny is a much better player than I am and I find myself chasing ping pong balls all over Brighton, vainly trying to get points on the board. Eventually it’s time to make for the casino, where I arrive tired, dishevelled and now uncomfortably sweaty from my futile ping-pong endeavours in the bright sunshine. Following an up and down day 1b I have a meagre 10BB stack with me as play begins.

Dorm
A quiet moment in the dorm

Some seven hands later, in roughly the same time it takes to make a small lunch, I get it in with AQ against AJ, find myself on the pointy end of a four flush and head back to the car for a 350 mile drive back to Gateshead. Thanks to traffic and roadworks, the journey home takes exactly the same amount of time as it did on the way out. Nine hours. Nine sodding hours!

I pondered on how much time I might have wasted by merely playing the event for much of the journey home. Was it really worth the bother? It was probably due to tiredness but I hadn’t particularly enjoyed myself. The event itself was well organised and there were plenty of nice people and good conversations but lengthy drives with long delays and poor sleep in crappy locations don’t make for a great mood or, more pertinently, great preparation. I actually fired two bullets at this event as I was eliminated 15 minutes from the end of play on day 1a after I rivered the nut flush but failed to notice that the board had double paired, paying off an opponent who could only be holding a full house. I was furious with myself for handing over my stack so cheaply after a full day’s play but hindsight tells me that it was almost unavoidable as I was more fatigued than a rusty Vauxhall Viva by that stage.

Viva
Viva Las Vauxhall

From a monetary perspective, even for a player such as myself who primarily plays $7 and $15 STTs, an 18 hour round journey for a poker tournament just doesn’t look like a valuable use of time. I’d qualified for the tournament with €500 packages – £220 buy-in plus expenses dependent on the exchange rate – through satellites for which I hadn’t paid a penny, so there is a strong appeal to play live tournaments on that basis. The $13,000 first place prize is appealing too but cashing (and particularly winning) live MTTs through satellites is an incredibly high variance route. A bink would be nice but, as with most tournaments, anything outside the top six isn’t a particularly big return comparative to the buy-in. A cursory glance at the numbers shows that it’s not really the most efficient route to profit.

I spent nine hours driving to Brighton before I even began playing poker. That’s nine hours I could have spent playing my normal online game instead of subjecting Jonny to much of the more obscure end of 90s Britpop through a car stereo. For the sake of argument we’ll say I play my lowest stake of six $7 S&Gs an hour and I have two breaks of one hour each. That’s seven hours of play staking $42 per hour. At the current exchange rate that’s a kick in the arse under £32. Over the course of the day that’s a total stake of £224 – almost exactly the same as the Unibet UK buy in – that I can invest as I sit at home clicking buttons and eating curry in my undercrackers. I don’t always eat curry in my undercrackers; sometimes I use a plate, but that’s another story.

Echobelly
Echobelly: Possibly Britpop’s 8th or 9th finest

There should, of course, be an overall higher % return from MTTs in comparison to STTs but even with 50% ROI over four days of travelling and playing an MTT compared to 5% ROI in the same period for online STTs, the difference between £110 and £48.80 is still clearly negated by lost rakeback, travel and accommodation costs subtracted from the package and time spent playing satellites in the first place rather than the ‘bread and butter’ games. It’s ultimately a lot of effort for very little reward. On the face of it, live events look like they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

A week earlier the Unibet Open took place in Malta. I didn’t qualify for that one but I went anyway thanks to Jonny – who did qualify – and his generous offer to let me roomshare with him. The buy-in for this event was €1,100 and is very much a flagship event on the Unibet calendar. The package, which is pretty standard for this type of event, is worth €2000 and includes the buy-in, four nights in a five star hotel and €250 in spendies. I’d personally run up a tidy little bankroll from scratch on Unibet and, never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, ears or most other orifices, I took the opportunity to take cheap flights out, tag along for a few days and treat myself to playing the €250 two day side event. In short I was able to experience a large event with top players from around Europe, enjoy the local sights, take advantage of the hotel facilities and put away far more free drink than can possibly be good for me. I was able to relax and enjoy myself. That, for me, is the the most significant thing.

UO Desktop
Unibet Open Malta

As far as I can tell, live players are almost always either going to be playing below their potential profitability or well out of their usual buy-in and therefore at a much higher standard. Given the nature of the event I recognised that I fell into the latter category, but to be fresh and well-rested didn’t just mean that my decision making at the table was better that at Brighton, it meant that I was able to enjoy playing poker. My primary motivation at the table may be to make money but big live tournaments such as these are, surely, special events that poker players should embrace. Even if it dents the hourly rate of the grinder (and ultimately hits the rake of the host company),  the exposure the host receives is good marketing and therefore good for the poker ecosystem. As players we all get to enjoy a few days somewhere nice while we’re at it.

I’ll definitely continue playing satellites as a side project to my standard games but my experiences this year have taught me that the tournaments need to be accessible and when accommodation isn’t available with the packages then something comfortable needs to be available locally within my budget. There may be a sizable difference in prestige between the Unibet Open and the Unibet UK Tour but they’re both good events and they’re both enjoyable if you can travel and rest without stress.

Martin Soukup
Surely that’s splashing the pot

So I’ll keep looking to win tournament packages despite the high variance involved. I’ll continue to take shots at prizes that dwarf the $62.51 I receive for winning a $15 S&G into insignificance. After all, when you play them by the dozen, S&Gs are duller than an appearance by Coldplay in an episode of Last of the Summer Wine, and it’s nice to have a side project to keep things varied. Above all though, I think I’m one of millions of small stakes players who are following dreams. I may never see €65,000 like Martin Soukup did in Malta and I may not even hit the £11,000 that Chris Cooper and Aidan Ball chopped in Brighton but there are a lot of very attractive satellites to get to a number of appealing tournaments. With a bit of work and a bit of rungood I might just hit a cash place big enough to make a reasonably significant difference to my life and, even if never get further than a min-cash, I intend to have fun on the way.

I didn’t trouble the cash in the €250 event in Malta by the way. After resolving to play tight at the outset and assess the field I found myself with AKs, QQ and JJ in the first orbit and found myself 3-betting people all over the shop. I immediately developed an image as an aggro-lunatic and spewed half my stack to boot. The turbo structure meant that it was a short journey from there to a short stack and a very standard elimination. Still, there’s always next time.

The Degeneration Game

drunk-poker-player

My ambitions as a poker player are relatively modest. It would be nice to swim among the sharks who consistently turn over six and seven figure annual profits but if I can ever get to a point where I can clear around £30,000 a year then I’ll be a very happy chap. That’s a figure that will allow me to cover my life expenses and spend plenty of time on the road. The money itself isn’t really the goal so much as the fact that I see poker as a vehicle that can support my twin ambitions of travelling the world and not starving to death. The fairly boring life of the online pro may be in stark contrast to the glitz of the televised tournaments but given the choice of 12 hours online grind in a van in Serbia and eight hours in an office dealing with other people’s problems then I’m going to find a parking space well away from any visiting Archdukes and hit the tables faster than you can say Black Hand Gang every single time.

The life of the pro naturally brings its own challenges. The battles with variance, the motivation to spend 98% of a session simply clicking the correct button and the difficulties of finding a way to have a piss if you still have tables going after five to the hour are some of the better recognised issues but one of the trickier quandaries that swings on and off the radar on a fairly regular basis is the question of how morally comfortable a person can be exploiting people for a living.

It’s no surprise, given my socialist leanings, that a number of friends have asked how I can square up my social outlook with the fact that winning at poker means taking advantage of ‘weak’ people who may be mathematically incompetent or problem gamblers. David Lappin has written on several occasions about his struggles with this question and there was a very interesting thread in the Ace High Poker Group recently in which a number of scenarios were presented, from preying on an obviously tilted opponent sitting at the table to the single mother handing you her poker chips with the unfortunate consequence that her children don’t get any potato chips.

I’m absolutely fine with it.

Vlad and Jo
Vlad and Jo discussing form ahead of the 3.40 Novice Chase at Wincanton

I completely sympathise with the human aspect and the problems these people have aren’t to be ignored. I spent five years managing bookmakers’ offices and a found myself morally compromised every day knowing that the job that I was doing was almost completely reliant on squeezing the pips out of people who really needed help. I recognise that there are times when it’s right to do what you can to prevent people from making unwise decisions when they’re not thinking correctly. Equally, there are also times when – sometimes reluctantly – you simply have to let them get on with it and look after your own interests. The poker table is one of these places.

If somebody sits down at our table, out of their depth, out of their stakes and badly tilted we should have no qualms about taking their chips. It’s difficult taking from people who clearly can’t afford it but as an adult it’s their own decision to sit at the table and we should be willing to accept it, even if it’s monumentally stupid. You’re both there to play poker so do what you always do – knuckle down and play the best you can. When you’re at the table you only have responsibility for your own decisions, not your opponents’. Unless you’ve actively persuaded them to sit down with their money then you’re not responsible for the wisdom of their choice to play either.

It would be reasonable at this stage to suggest that it’s hypocritical for me to say it’s fine for me to take money from players who shouldn’t be there but wrong for bookies to do exactly the same. The key difference is what goes on away from the tables. Bookies – and their close cousins poker sites, bingo halls and lottery operators – exist solely to make as much money as they can and have no social conscience whatsoever; they answer to their shareholders alone and the shareholders want maximum profits.

Lotto
Lotteries: The ‘acceptable’ form of problem gambling

Their marketing departments sell all potential customers a scarcely achievable dream, usually based on persuading you to take mathematical wagers weighted heavily in favour of the house. Their targeted marketing attracts ‘punters’, among whom are a huge number of statistically naive and psychologically damaged individuals. I’m sure there are exceptions but I’ve yet to see a poker player actively hustle vulnerable individuals to the table with the intention of taking them to the cleaners. In my experience it’s most likely that players would actively intervene away from the table if somebody looked like they were in trouble.

Many involved in the industry will argue that the Gambling Commission and their overseas equivalents have led to greater social responsibility from operators but I’ve spent long enough within those circles to know that their facade of ‘responsibility’ is utter bollocks; a pointless empty vessel upon which charlatans pay lip service to the wellbeing of customers in return for slot machine licenses that enable them to empty the pockets of the very people they claim to protect.

The question for me is where one draws the line between looking for a solid edge and exploiting the vulnerable and I think that line can be drawn very distinctly at the pay desk. The second a person sits down with chips then they’re fair game, regardless of how drunk, tilted or vulnerable they are. If you know the person in question then it’s right and proper to try and help before or after they’ve played and as a decent human being then you may feel bad about relieving them of their chips, but it’s your responsibility as a poker player to do exactly that. ‘If we don’t do it then somebody else will’ is usually the wishy-washy defence of arms dealers, slave traders and other cowards but it’s a position with genuine depth at the poker table, particularly in tournaments as somebody literally has to have all the chips at the end. There are, admittedly, more nuances when it comes to ring games but the point remains – if there are chips on the table they’re to be played for.

Let’s say you’re a good pool player and you pay £1,000 to enter a tournament. You’ve done your homework on the likely opponents, you’ve been practicing every day for a month and you’re in the zone. You know that it’s a tough field but you’re in with a good shout of winning. When you reach the venue you happen to run into a good friend who’s been out of sorts since his girlfriend has left him. He likes to play pool in the pub occasionally but he’s not very good. He’s also steaming drunk.

When your friend tells you that he’s decided to enter the tournament then it’s right and proper to persuade him that it’s an incredibly bad idea based on drunken whimsy. You’re willing to sacrifice the extra equity in the prize fund because you don’t want to see a good mate lose a lot of money because he’s in a bad place and not thinking properly. Any decent human being would do the same, but if he decides to play then it’s unfortunate but you’ve done what you can.

Swimming Pool
Not that sort of pool you idiot!

In spite of your best efforts your friend decides to play. He wins his first game after some outrageously good fortune from bad shots, he wins the next as his opponent’s balls wound up in tricky spots and he wins the third thanks to a foul on the black. He faces you in the quarter-final. What do you do? Do you go easy on him? Do you withdraw from the competition because it would be unfair to play him? No, of course you don’t, because it’s a contest and we’re competing with the intention of winning. You hand him his arse on a plate and put him on the train to Brokesville. You wouldn’t be expected to compromise in any other game and poker shouldn’t be an exception. Once the game is over we can think about straightening him out but we can never put ourselves in a position where we have to suffer because of somebody else’s bad choices.

Good people are never going to be comfortable taking advantage of others but poker is fundamentally about exploiting other people’s bad decisions. If Phil Ivey bluffs off his stack while you’re holding quads you wouldn’t dream of refusing his chips because he’d made a bad decision. When Drunko McTilty has paid to sit down at the table we should give equal respect to his decisions too.

Never take a sword to a gunfight, even if some lunatic has turned up with a feather duster.

 

Thinking Outside The Tank

Tank Man

One thing that poker coaching has forced upon me is the necessity to change the way I think about the game. Any player who’s given any serious thought into the game knows that poker is about playing the opponent more than it is about playing the cards but it’s a startlingly difficult thing to do at the microstakes when opponents barely know what they’re doing themselves. The principle behind the adage about never bluffing a fish is equally valuable when it comes to assessing their likely holding.

One of the first things I did when I started doing sessions with my coach was to cut from nine-tabling to six-tabling so I could spend more time thinking about decisions. I’ve since cut it down to four and I don’t think it’s entirely necessary for me to step above that again in most circumstances, but we’ll reassess further down the line. Even with only four tables at a time it’s difficult to analyse $3.50 turbo S&Gs on a street-by-street basis because so much of the early levels involves betting out and taking the pot with a flop c-bet. It’s not long before you’re into fairly standard push/fold fayre.

One solution that I came up with was to start playing live poker again. Slower action means more thinking time and, with a moderately higher buy-in than my normal stakes at one of my local Friday night tournaments, I expected to encounter a fairly reasonable level of play, at least in part, despite a steep blind structure. I was amazed to find that the standard of live play had plummeted since I’d last set foot in a casino. I sat for the first half hour watching multi-way pots and random bets while people called off huge portions of their stack with absolute junk. Eventually I picked up aces in the big blind and strapped on my safety belt. One loose player in early position who was bad but not a total maniac raised 3xbb and the player to his left called. In a remarkable break with tradition, everybody else folded. I seriously considered jamming for about 80bb (I think it was about 80bb, it was a while ago now) as I half expected a call but as the raiser wasn’t completely horrible I decided to throw in a slightly larger than average 3-bet. The raiser jammed, the guy to his left folded and I called. Naturally a fourth heart on the river killed me.

Couple having romantic dinner
“I call, and so does my darling wife.”

I rebought and was placed three to the left of a guy who was clearly in the middle of a serious session on the pop. I soon found myself with AKo on the small blind and a man, whose name I don’t know but we’ll call him Fishy McLoosedonk for the time being, min raised under the gun. The two players to his left called, followed by one of the waitresses, six people on the next table, half the bar staff, a couple in the Chinese restaurant next door, a pigeon with a gammy leg in the street outside and, finally, the drunk guy three to my right. The two players between us had clearly suffered from some debilitating brain injury that prevented them calling behind – I think even I would have called any two in position when the number of players in the pot had equalled the capacity of Wembley Arena – and I thought it prudent to make a fairly solid raise with Anna Kournikova in my hand.

There was so much in the pot that shoving was definitely a valid option but I opted instead for a substantial raise with the intention of getting the rest in on a nice-looking flop. My raise somehow managed to eliminate all opponents except the drunk guy to my right and the flop was a delicious looking JJ3 rainbow. The question of the best way to get the chips in was solved when my sloshed nemesis started putting his chips together as subtly as Brian Blessed turning up at Anne Frank’s house and asking if the Nazis have found her yet. He was clearly intending to put them in the middle so I opted to check on the off-chance that jamming might scare him off. Sure enough he put me all in and sheepishly showed Q7o.

Brian Blessed

“ANNE! DO YOU STILL HAVE THAT DRUM KIT I BOUGHT YOU?”

The hand bothered me. In fairness, I suppose his call before my 3-bet is okay with position on a lot of random opponents – not that he would have even considered that – but it’s the fact that he would have played it anyway and most of the other players at the table would have played crap like T6o, K3o and 92s (“Yes, but they’re suited”). People had been doing it all night but this was the first pot I’d been in where I’d come up against such a weird holding. In fact, I think it was the second pot I’d been in, the first being when I went busto with aces. It may be a weird thing to say but winning was a secondary consideration. I was there to learn.

In terms of positive expectations in a tournament then I’ll take a donkfest every day of the week. In terms of learning to be a better poker player then it’s even worse than the online micros as it’s very difficult to narrow an opponent’s range and you’re forced to play the board rather than pinning down their likely holding. It makes things a bit tougher in its own way for a microstakes turbo merchant because there just don’t seem to be that many hands when you can play down the streets against opponents with the full quota of functioning brain cells. In hindsight though, I suppose I have to accept that it is what it is, take advantage when I can and be grateful that I’m still able to swim amongst so many fish.

Perversely, there is actually a certain element of ranging in the Q7 hand that goes along the line of, ‘Right then, pissed-up-fucko, you’re playing so many hands that you’re missing that flop so ridiculously often I’ll play for stacks and happily pay you off if you rock up with any sort of holding.” It’s not close to good enough to improve reading skills though and the inclination is to return to the old, very limiting, habit of playing the texture of the flop.

For the record, the sozzled fucknut was cock-a-hoop when he hit his seven on the river but that was fine with me – I don’t really mind bad beats, particularly when they’re being paid for by people who are ultimately handing me their cash the majority of the time when the hand stands up. In fact the guy was amazed that I was happy to laugh and joke along with him as he scooped my chips, clearly not understanding that I just don’t want to scare away the fish. I went out a few hands later when I got AQ in short-stacked and lost to AJ. I mention it not to rattle on about bad-beats but because I’ve seen so many people on the internet recently banging on about how internet poker is rigged and the same doesn’t happen in live games so I’m happy to document their fuckwittery.

Potential Serial Killer
“I like making friends and the taste of human flesh.”

I was dwelling on this a couple of weeks ago when I received a friend request on Facebook from somebody I don’t know but whose name I recognised from the site’s Ace High Poker Group. As he didn’t have the immediate aura of a person likely to hunt me down and kill my family I decided to accept the request and I was very pleasantly surprised a couple of days later when he sent me a message outlining his poker history and asking if I’d like to swap some hands for comparative purposes. A couple of hands down the line and it felt like a mini breakthrough. I’ll often analyse my own hands and try to identify where I went wrong (or occasionally right) but it can be tough without a secondary reference to bounce off. I know that my hand reading is improving anyway, even though I’ve been struggling to get enough off-table work in, but being able to have access to somebody else’s decision making processes and contrasting them with your own is a fantastic tool.

There should probably be some sort of conclusion here. I suppose it’s to suggest that you find a study friend if you’re a microgrinder and don’t already have one. It’s a lonely life being an online poker player, particularly if you’re short of poker-playing friends in the real world. Learning to range your opponent is a difficult skill and I know that I’m still a long way away from being confident with it, particularly during in-game situations, but with access to the experiences of contemporaries, as well as the knowledge of a coach and some focus on opponents who aren’t deranged mentalists, then it’s very clear that mastering this vital skill can only be a matter of time.

I’m also going to plug the benefits of social media in general. Since I joined Ace High Poker Group on Facebook and signed up to the Ranking Hero website I’ve found a coach, I’ve discovered plenty of learning resources, I’ve got fellow players to bounce ideas off and I’ve been pointed in the direction of one of the softest poker sites in the entire universe where the players have already contributed about 0.75% to the cost of my mortgage in the space of two months. There’s also some cracking laughs to be had too, once you’ve ignored the whines about online poker being rigged.

Oh, and play more live poker too. Most people are shit.

First Thoughts

beach poker

I look back at 2015 as something of a success as I managed to tick off a number of boxes on my ‘to do’ list. over the course of the year I was able to perform stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe, spend two months travelling in Australia and learn the fundamentals of improvisation. I also completely destroyed my own record for consuming ridiculous volumes of tea, which I think should be rewarded with a national honour of some description but nobody else seems to be particularly bothered. Among the many experiences I was fortunate to have I also made a very simple and very significant decision which will be my primary motivator for the months ahead; I want to become location independent.

Location independence simply means that I don’t want to be tied to one place, whether it be at work, at home or, in my current situation, both. It’s a switching of priorities to ensure that I can earn my living from a location that I choose rather than work choosing it for me. I want to see more of the world and I want to start yesterday. If I’m going to succeed then I need to be able to cut my reliance on income from my current office job and switch to something more offbeat that I can do primarily from my laptop. After shortlisting a few possibilities, the notion of income though poker crept its way up the list to the point where, in September, I made the decision to pay particular attention to it.

I’ve been playing poker on-and-off for about 11 years now. I started with a few online freerolls at the height of the post-Moneymaker poker boom, read Super System, learned the basics and developed enough to get slightly ahead of the microstakes S&G curve. I even started a local poker club along with two friends of mine who have always been exceptional card players and we developed something of a reputation for being one of the best pub poker schools in the area, though anybody familiar with pub poker will know that’s like making a bacon sandwich in the final of Masterchef and winning first prize because your opponents either made anthrax soup, couldn’t find their way to the studio or were so incompetent that they impaled themselves on a whisk and died. After a sabbatical I started playing again in around 2009 and spent some time absolutely crushing the S&Gs on UltimateBet. After an argument about rakeback I moved most of my bankroll to Pokerstars and went on a losing streak long enough for me to lose heart, give up and cash out the lot for about $1600. Not huge amounts but not a bad return for an initial investment of $40.

The problem was that the game was changing rapidly around me and I wasn’t adapting to suit. S&Gs were being smashed by people who had taken the time to get ICM nailed down while I was still playing a very standard game of tight early and aggressive late. It works enough to get past the fish but better players will still have the lion’s share of equity. I also hadn’t recognised that the player pool on Pokerstars, while undoubtedly fishy at the micros, is – or appears to be – significantly better overall than their counterparts on other sites. With hindsight I think a lot of my UltimateBet profit can simply be attributed to woeful opposition. And Americans. I think every winning online player took a hit to their ROI when we lost American players.

Fast forward to last year, the occasional session here and there just for the fun of it and a graph that was slowly dropping further and further away from the breakeven line. I’d spent time working on ICM and doing some sporadic study on my overall play and I still couldn’t beat the nine seat $3.50 S&Gs, which was hugely frustrating. On the other hand, and I’m undoubtedly on the right side of variance given the format and the sample size of around 400 games, I gave the $2.50 180 seat S&G quite a kicking and I started getting my appetite for the game back.

In September I actually made the decision to try and earn a living – as far as possible – from playing poker. I’ve always loved the game and what better thing is there than being your own boss and enjoying yourself at the same time? I’ve finally got round to getting one-to-one coaching with the excellent Ben Smith and he’s already transformed much of my game. My goal from here is to learn and improve as quickly as I can and be confident about every decision that I make, regardless of the level I’m playing at. Poker has become much more difficult in recent years and I don’t think that trend is likely to change soon, or at least not until we get the Americans back, but as with all walks of life the best route to success in your field is to be an expert in your field. These days that means plenty of structured study time as well as sessions on the felt.

I’m still spending a lot of time on the $3.50 S&Gs because even though I’m confident I’ve got the game beaten, I’m not going to put them down until my results back me up. From a long term perspective my intention is to play MTTs primarily as they’re usually softer fields and I much prefer that format of the game. More specifically, I’ve recently turned my eye towards satellite tournaments. There appears to be a lot of excellent value in these games, particularly at low stakes, mostly because they seem to be brimming with players who are either just downright bad or have no idea about the need to adjust when playing to outlast a percentage of runners rather than just taking it down outright. In short, I’m chasing the easiest money. I’ve also been reading quite a bit of what satellite specialists  Willie Elliot and the remarkable Dara O’Kearney have to say, which is very helpful.

Weak satellite tournaments have also given me the opportunity to achieve one of my goals for 2016 in the first weeks of the year – I’ll post the rest later – as I’ve qualified for a package at the Unibet UK Open in April. It’s ‘only’ a £220 buy in so hardly qualification for the WSOP Main Event but it’s a decent start to the year nevertheless, particularly for somebody whose usual grind is $3.50 S&Gs.  In fact, the opening weeks of 2016 have been pretty spectacular relative to my normal stakes so perhaps my goal of being location flexible may not be as distant as it initially appears. More of that at a later date though.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, admittedly rather self-indulgent, first post which is intended as a synopsis of who I am, how I got here and the journey that I want to take. I’ll be using this as a benchmark at the end of the year to measure my own progress but I otherwise want to provide content that is accessible, informative and entertaining. I’d love to keep it as interactive as possible too so please add comments, suggestions and vouchers for free curry as you see fit.

MT