Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beginner's Luck

Last night I had the chance to play real games of poker for the first
time. I have played around with friends or family a few times, and I
knew the basic rules, but I had never played with actual chips or
proper betting rules. It was a friendly game, but we followed all of
the official rules.

It was a $10 buy-in, nickel-ante, dealer's-choice game. I expected to
lose the $10, but figured the night would be worth it. There were
four of us: me, another econ grad student, the husband of an econ grad
student, and some poor sap who was clearly out of his league. He had
played poker quite a bit, and knew a lot of interesting variants, but
his mind just didn't have the ability to keep up with our ability to
calculate probabilities and strategies.

I played fairly well, despite occasionally forgetting things. I found
that I could be completely rational about the game; I don't remember
ever getting emotional in any way. Nobody seemed to be able to read
me or figure out what I was thinking. My strategy was one of ruthless
mathematical calculation: trust the odds, calculate expected values,
and act accordingly, mostly ignoring the signals generated by other
players. It seemed to work.

The format of the night was extremely good for my kind of thinking.
Every round, we would change the type of game being played, so all of
the strategies and odds would change. This favored rapid calculation
rather than experience or study. If we had been playing one of the
more common variants all night, I would probably have been at a severe
disadvantage; these players probably knew all of the ideal strategies.
I seem to remember that when we played common games like Texas
Hold-em, I didn't do as well. And when I called five-card draw, I did
pretty well, because I have the most experience in that format.

Here is an example of how I approached the game. After some time, my
$10 stake had slowly grown to about $18. We were playing a version of
Texas Hold-em where the appearance of any face card causes the entire
hand to be removed from play and re-dealt, but with the pot intact.
The pot was about $4, two players had folded, and the remaining one
went all-in for $12. I had nothing good in my hand, but I thought for
a bit. I figured that he was probably bluffing, and even if he wasn't
there was a good chance for a face card to show up and randomize
everything. Given that the winner would be random, I was facing a 50%
chance of losing $12 and a 50% chance of winning $16. Those seemed
like good odds, so I called. Also, I didn't want to set a precedent
of allowing him to claim pots like that. It turned out that he was
bluffing, and that a face card did show up to force a re-deal. I
ended up winning the $28 pot with a pair of twos.

If he had waited until the last card had been flipped, I might have
folded, because the potential randomness would have been reduced a
lot. But he was not adjusting his bluffing strategy to the change in
the game rules.

After that, I cashed in, putting $20 in my wallet and leaving about
$14 in chips. This amount didn't change for a while, and then I lost
it calling another all-in. I had a full house, but it wasn't enough.
I bought another $10 of chips, leaving my wallet with the money I had
come in with. My pile of chips started to grow steadily again. I had
a run of good luck, and my slow and precise incremental betting
strategy never scared people into folding until it was too late. I
hardly ever won through other people folding; it usually turned into a
showdown and I usually won. I ended the night by using a hand of four
jacks to clean out the table. I am now $36 richer.

I know that I had a run of ridiculous luck. I don't expect that to
ever happen again. But it is nice to know that I can play the game
fairly well.

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