Tuesday, June 30, 2009

World Series of Poker

For my upcoming trip to Las Vegas, I've promised a bunch of people that I'd keep them updated on how I'm doing while I'm there. Chances are I'll be knocked out early on (after all, most people are), but perhaps there will be time for a few posts of interest nonetheless. The majority of the people who have requested that I'll keep them posted are not poker players, or at least not very experienced poker players, so to kick things off I'd like to set a few things straight.

(Hi immediate family, hi Zenterio people, hi Facebook acquaintances, hi everyone else who might drop in!)

First of all, the World Series of Poker is, as the name implies, a series of tournaments, not just one tournament, and the one I'll be playing in is actually event #57 of the series, and is called the "Main Event." It's a $10,000 buy-in, no-limit hold'em tournament and usually has around 6,000 entrants. The entry to the tournament, plus a week's worth of hotel and $1,000 to get to and from Las Vegas was something I won in a small tournament at Party Poker, which cost me $5 to enter and which has to be, by any standard, a really good deal for me.

Secondly, and I'm bringing this up since there has been some confusion about this when I'm telling people about it, a tournament where a lot of people enter means that there's a lot of tables full of people playing at the same time. It is NOT the case that only the winner of each table goes on to keep playing. It doesn't work that way at all, but rather what they do is to make sure to keep the tables as full as possible at all times. Since every table has 10 seats (or 9? I forget) and there can be as many as 3,000 people playing at the same time, this means that there can be up to 300 tables full of players in a very large room. As the tournament progresses and people get eliminated (by losing all their chips) seats will become vacant at the tables. Once enough seats are vacant, some tables will simply be split up and the people playing at them will be assigned new seats among the ones that are empty. In other words, we're not playing until someone is the only one left at a table, but until there's only one table left, if you see the difference.

[Curiously, once there's only one table left, the tournament will take a 3-month break and will resume again in November. This was something they started doing last year and I believe the reason for it is that they want time to get a whole bunch of media coverage and sell really expensive advertisements for it. Last year it may not have worked out so well for them (the final table was played only days after the US presidential election and so the expected media frenzy over the poker world championships was underwhelming), but perhaps they'll be redeemed this year. In the very unlikely event that I'll be playing at the final table, in other words, I'll have to go back to Vegas again in November.]

Third, it's not a "winner-takes-all" tournament. If 6,000 people enter - as was the case last year - they start the payouts at around position 600. So if I'm among the first 5,400 people to get knocked out, I win nothing. And if I'm knocked just after the "bubble" bursts (the point in the tournament where people start getting paid) I'll win around $20,000. The payouts increase gradually (and slowly, at first) up to first place which last year paid about nine million dollars.

Fourth, and this is the main point which I think people may misunderstand about poker in general and tournaments specifically, this tournament is predominantly about luck. I don't care what you've heard before or seen in "Rounders" or any other place, the fact of the matter is that the outcome of a tournament is not going to even remotely accurately reflect skill. I'm not pointing this out to safe-guard myself from being teased about not being good enough if I get knocked out early, but because I don't want people to get strange ideas about what it means to win money in a tournament. On the other hand, I also really don't want you to think that I'm claiming that poker is a game where only lucky people win because that's not true either. Poker is a skill game as surely as any other game of skill you can come up with, but the edge that a skilled player has over a bad player is very small compared to how the cards fall. Over a long period of time, skill will completely negate the random deals of cards and only the skilled players will make money - but one tournament is anything but a long period of time. A couple of thousand tournaments and we can start talking.

To help me explain this I'll use two "games" that are analogous to poker in their different ways: Bridge and betting on horses.

Bridge is a good analogy because the deal of the cards is random. However, no one (in their right mind) would claim that bridge isn't a game of skill. The way bridge tournaments has taken the luck out of the cards is by dealing the same hands to different teams and matching their relative score. So a team that plays a "bad" hand really well still gets rewarded for it and can go on to win a bridge tournament even if they haven't "won" a single deal. This is most certainly not the case in poker; a poker player can play every hand he's dealt perfectly and still get knocked out early and not win anything.

Betting on horses is also a good analogy for poker, but in a different way, because it helps explain how "luck" can be successful in the short term but skill will prevail in the long term. If a skilled professional sports bettor (horses, football, whatever he's betting on) places a bet, he's not expecting to win it most of the time. In fact, the vast majority of bets he places will be losing bets, but he's looking at the odds not the chance of winning: If he thinks a horse will win 25% of the time, but is getting 8:1 odds, he's going to bet a fairly sizeable chunk of money on that horse. Sure, three times out of four he's going to lose the money that he bets. But one quarter of the time, he'll get 8 times his money back which makes him a huge winner in the long term.

And so it is with online poker tournaments. The world's best player (I'm not going to speculate as to who that is except to say that it's decidedly not me) is almost certainly not going to win the World Series of Poker Main Event. In fact, he's probably more likely than not to not even get paid at all. But the times that he (or she, in fairness) DOES get paid, that payday is going to make up for the many losses he has to put up with between wins. That's how poker tournaments work.


And my point in all this, especially the last part about luck and skill, is that I don't want anyone to get their hopes up. There's perhaps 6,000 people entering, which is a lot of people to hope for to get knocked out before I do. And if the world's best player is more likely than not to be knocked out of the tournament without winning anything at all, the same clearly goes for me. That said, I'll still do my best to have fun and let you know - via this blog - how things are going. I'll try to make a point of making a post every night from the hotel room but I'll hope you forgive me if I miss some nights.

So bookmark this: http://fredrikpaulsson.blogspot.com/ (or subscribe to the RSS feed) and you'll see how I'm doing and what's going on. I'm hoping to get some pictures up, too. I must remember to pack the camera.

Comments are enabled and you're welcome to write and show your undying support for your hero - me.

Jao jao jao,

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Zimbardo and Time (and poker)

If you haven't discovered TED yet, I think you should really check it out: www.ted.com. It's a collection of lectures by various scientists, philosophers and others and many of them are really, really cool.

Tonight, after dinner and before the movie that's starting at 9 (Forgetting Sarah Marshall - is it any good?), we surfed to the TED website and checked if there were any new talks that we hadn't seen. We watched three; one of them about the gecko's tail (which was cool) and then this, by Phil Zimbardo:


Incidentally, Philip Zimbardo was the leader of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which he talked about at some length in the second talk by him we watched. That talk was also very interesting, especially if you haven't heard about it before and I recommend it. But I wanted to draw a brief parallel between his take on time perspectives (from the video linked above) and the healthy attitude for a poker player to have.

He says, and I'm paraphrasing, that there are three different time perspectives we as humans can take: Past, present and future. All of us balance all three perspectives simultaneously, and what matters is how we shift these balances. For each of the three perspectives there are two sub-groups:
  • Past-positive and past-negative; remembering the good times and agonizing over the bad events respectively.
  • Present-hedonistic and present-fatalist; enjoying the moment and taking a "whatever will be, will be" outlook respectively.
  • ... and future, which I forget how he labelled but they came down to setting goals and anticipating results (career, family, etc.) and living your life for the (religious) afterlife respectively.
I won't repeat his thoughts on the pitfalls and benefits of the different perspectives, because I think you should watch the video yourselves (it's only a little over five minutes long). But watching this talk and getting to comment on it in the blog was a freebie for me because I was already thinking about writing about past-focused people so now I get to work that in. I apologize for this brief detour before returning to poker:

The phrase "bättre förr" ("better before" in direct translation) is common in Swedish, but the sentiment is, it seems to me, common everywhere. People roll their eyes at "today's youth" they scoff at the decline of society, about how everything's just getting worse and how much better and easier everything used to be. These people are, at least in this regard, delusional.

If you're using any kind of sensible yard stick to measure whether or not it's better now than it used to be (with some rare exceptions), your conclusion really has to be that yes - it's better now than ever before. Even if we ignore civil liberties (women's vote, black vote, gay rights, etc. etc.) and technological gadgets (do you remember the time when, if you had forgotten what you were supposed to get at the store, you had to go home and ask and then go back to the store?) and even medicine (hello higher life expectancy, better quality of life for seniors and drastically reduced infant mortality rates), then the quality of life still has gone up universally. Not for everyone, but on average. For the vast majority of humans, we have improved transportation, improved housing, cleaner water, cheaper food, more time to spend with our family and friends and we are safer than ever before.

The idea that it was better before is bullshit. Anyone who thinks so is either extremely naïve, extremely forgetful about how it really was, or an asshole who longs for the days when whites were the master race or they were 82nd in line for the British throne. Or so.

Anyway, that's what I wanted to write about before watching Zimbardo's talk on time perspectives and now I've gotten that off my chest. Detour done. Back to Zimbardo. Back to poker.

I saw a parallel to poker players when I watched his talk (which, by the way, I really wished the organizers would have allocated more than just five minutes for; the topic certainly deserved not to be hurried through the way it was) because ideally, a poker player should make his decisions future-oriented. What I mean by that is this:

Being past-oriented when it comes to poker is, essentially, being results-oriented. With the balance heavily towards the past-negative perspective, we become overwhelmed by memories of bad-beats past. If we're prone to past-positive, we might overestimate our chances with certain hands ("I just love 96s, I can't seem to lose with it!") because they're "our favorites."

Being a present-oriented poker player has other dangers. If we're "present-hedonistic" we might call because it's "fun." Or because we want to spite-call the guy who's we're pissed off at. Or because we "feel lucky" or any other spur-of-the-moment reason to make a certain move that in reality is not the best for the situation at hand. Or maybe we're "present-fatalist" and don't properly analyze the situations and instead just decide that if we lose it's because we were unlucky. That the cards determine who wins and loses.

Future-oriented is the appropriate perspective for the poker player. The mindset of making moves not based on what we think will happen this particular time we play the hand, but in the long run. Not letting the results we had in this hand cloud our judgment for the next time we're in a similar situation. Focusing on the long term expected value, setting goals for the hours we play and how we play them, being disciplined enough not to move up to some high stakes game chasing losses, clearing our mind of the bad beats we've been dealt recently and always, always looking for ways to improve our win-rate.

As it were, being too heavily balanced towards the future perspective in life in general is not a good thing; it can drive people to work long hours, become married to their job and not spend enough time enjoying themselves, missing opportunities to hang out with friends and family. But for when you're playing poker, the future is where your mind should be. And when you're not playing poker, it should at least most definitely not be in your poker-playing past.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Weird Conclusions

There was an article yesterday in Swedish newspaper/site DN.se that said, and I'm translating to the best of my abilities, "Fewer Iraqis Request Aid For Returning To Homeland" and refers to Iraqi refugees in Sweden who are entitled to government aid to a value of about $4,000 to help them return home to Iraq. Now, language subtleties do not translate well but I hope my translation did the job somewhat well. From the title, it's a little bit ambiguous as to whether or not this is good news or bad news. The way the original phrased it, in Swedish, the tone was just an inkling towards it being "bad news" whereas I would say that my English translation made it sound just an inkling towards "good news."

So is it good news or bad news?

Well, before even reading the article I intuitively made the guess that the reason fewer and fewer Iraqis return to Iraq from Sweden might simply be that the majority of the Iraqis who are interested in returning home would have done so by now. Not all of them, for sure, but enough so that the number of applications for government aid would almost be expected to have gone down by now.

This explanation - to me the most obvious one - was not listed. Listed were instead two other possibilities:

1) The $4,000 isn't enough money to pay for the expenses for the refugees returning home, and
2) the violence in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul continues.

They even mention that Sweden has forcibly transferred Iraqis ("mass deportations") whose claims to be granted refugee status, I presume, were rejected. And STILL the number of people who volountarily seek to return is going down. Yet, I repeat, the most obvious explanation for this was not mentioned.

Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps it's clearly not the case that we are running shorter on Iraqis who can't wait to go back home. But the way the subject matter was treated in the newspaper makes it sounds like there's an endless supply of Iraqi refugees in Sweden.


We're visiting my parents in Karlstad for a week, and going back home to Linköping on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. After that, we'll have about a week to get everything in order before we leave for Las Vegas. I'm very excited and duly nervous at the same time. Excited about playing in the ME, excited about meeting some people I haven't seen for over a year, and excited about meeting some people I've only talked to online before. Nervous about the flight and how Baby Benjamin's going to handle three take-offs and landings. Hopefully it'll be alright.


My lack of volume in terms of hands played has not increased significantly since May. I think I've plowed through about 15k hands in June so far which is obviously a disappointment. 2500 of those hands cost me almost a dollar/hand - worst day I've had for a very long time - and dug me a hole that I haven't quite managed to climb out of yet; I'm stuck maybe $800 for the month. It's not a disaster by any means, but I need to make sure to get some big days in before we leave for LV. Especially since I won't get to play much in July either. Of course, if I manage to luck myself into cashing in the Main Event, I can easily afford to take almost the rest of the year off and live solely off of my bankroll, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.