Pride and Poker

March 23, 2009 by  
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Emotions have no place at the poker table, and apparently feelings like pride or ego even less so. Sometimes however, not even the best of professionals can efficiently lock these factors out of their play.
The hand I’m about to discuss is one for the ages: it has Sammy Farha going up against Barry Greenstein, in the very last hand of the day on High Stakes Poker. It has a perfect hand situation, which eventually blows up in the face of the player who initially held the advantage. It has fair play, it has emotion and above all, it has pride involved, pride which costs one of the protagonists a huge sum of money.

You can take a look at the hand yourself here:

Just as the day draws to an end at the High Stakes Poker table, and just as players are getting up one by one to probably head to their quarters, the unlikely happens as Barry Greenstein picks up a pair of Aces. That fact alone however is far from being enough for starting the chain reaction which will eventually blow this hand up. The missing ingredient gets added to the mix when Sammy Farha picks up a pair of Ks. That hand turns the otherwise mundane mix into a volatile concoction, set to wreak havoc and to eat up one of the stacks involved.
Now then, don’t you for second think that Farha didn’t have Greenstein on a fairly accurate range of hands, but despite the fact that he says he is the only gambler at the table, he most probably considers his is the best hand at that moment. He probably puts Greenstein on an A,K, and that’s probably the reason why he asks about who’s done the shuffling.

Farha may want to come through as a gambler and a reckless player, but if you’ve seen him play, you’ll probably agree that a player of his caliber doesn’t shove all his money in when he knows he’s a huge underdog and especially not when he knows his opponent has him covered. So in this respect, that’s great theatre on the Farha’s part but nothing more.
He goes all-in and probably realizes that Greenstein does in fact have the rockets and not the A,K when he sees the speed with which the latter makes the call.

By then, Farha knows he’s in trouble and the reflexes of the successful businessman that he is take over. He immediately tries to improve his odds by asking Greenstein whether or not he wants to run the board twice. Perfectly aware of the advantage he holds, Greenstein refuses, and the flop is dealt. Farha doesn’t quit acting for a second. He announces that he is in fact the favorite, but the surprised look on his face when he sees the flop betrays him. He is still smooth-enough though to propose running the board twice, again. Greenstein refuses him once again, out of pride, as he can’t possible accept the deal after he so bluntly refused it the first time.

The flop and the turn fall a couple of bricks and Barry’s chips head on over to Farha’s side of the table as the rich get yet again richer.
Did Greenstein commit a mistake by refusing Farha’s proposal the second time? It depends on how you look at it. He knows the show is televised, and he knows thousands, possibly millions of players will see it. For a professional of his caliber image means something we – the ordinary people – cannot possibly comprehend. His image does translate into cash for him among other things, and he probably knows things in that respect that we don’t. From that perspective, his decision is a correct one.

If we look at it from the point of view of the player out to nab every tiny edge, he’s committed a mistake.
Something tells me though that the pressure and exasperation conveyed by the hand failed to get to Greenstein. He made the right call after all…

A more than perfect hand

March 1, 2009 by  
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The perfect hand is one of the few situations which present a direct contradiction between the fundamental theorem of winning poker – as formulated by David Sklansky in his ‘The Theory of Poker” – and the actual way the involved parties play their hands.
The fundamental theorem of winning poker says that a poker player commits a mistake (gives up value) whenever he plays a hand otherwise than he would if he could see his opponent’s hole cards. He gains value every time he plays the same way he would if he could see the hole-cards he’s up against.

Now then, take a look at the following hand,

and let me know who made the mistake there. The two players (Boeken and Marek) who went all in on the weaker hands? According to Sklansky’s theorem, they were the one making the mistake. The outcome of the hand suggests the same conclusion: they both took huge hits to their stacks, and I’m pretty sure they would’ve thrown their hands away had they known what Jethro was hiding in his pocket.
Picking up a pair of Ks against pocket rockets does happen rather often. If you take a look at the hand histories of any major live poker tournaments you’re bound to find at least a couple of hands like that in every event. This hand is much more interesting though from the perspective of two players both picking up pocket kings against the third guy’s pocket Aces. How often does that happen?
Despite the fact that the two players on K,K both commit a mistake here, they just cannot fold – as the commentator himself remarks. There’s no way you can throw a K,K away preflop, simply on account of the fact that there’s just one possible pocket hand that can beat you, and apparently – despite the adverse odds – one hand which can tie you. If you make a habit of folding pocket Ks when faced with a preflop raise, you’re probably going to let go of a whole lot of value in the long-run.
This is exactly why hands like this one are called perfect hands. They will make money for the player with the marginally stronger hand taking advantage of the fact that it is contrary to the principles of EV+ exploitation for the victim to fold.

Now then, this hand here is more than a simple perfect hand situation. On a perfect hand, the eventual winner usually only manages to trap a single opponent all-in, which makes this setup a guarantee for a double-up. In this YouTube hand though, the winner triples up pulling of a double perfect hand setup.
What sort of defense is there against such perfect hand situations? I’m afraid none. It’s just one of the peculiarities of poker that sometimes you will get felted while making the best possible decision from your point of view. Not the even the best of poker professionals can do a whole lot about getting stuck on the lower end of a perfect hand.
Daniel Negreanu, one of the best readers in the game, couldn’t do a whole lot about Gus Hansen outdrawing him with four 5s to three 6s. I suppose it’s safe to say someone who lacks Negreanu’s skills doesn’t even stand that much of a chance for spotting the freight train headed for his stack.
The thought process of the victim in perfect hand situations gives him all the reasons he needs to make the call and to possibly risk his tournament life. Out of a relatively wide range of hands he places his opponent on, only a tiny fraction has him beat, which means the positive Expected Value is not just obviously there, it comes with a rather large margin too.
The question that comes to my mind about the perfect hand situation is the following though: how does it affect your balance of Sklansky dollars? Can you consider that you just bagged a nice pot or should you jot down a loss?

I mean going all-in on K,K against a random hand will certainly win you Sklansky dollars all the time, but going all-in on it against A,A won’t…