This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
I'm in Las Vegas at Binion's, about to play in my first-ever World Series of Poker final event in about an hour. Why haven't I ever played it before? Too hard to win, I think. I mean, there are supposed to be 325 players. I'm sure many of the top players believe they're the best in the world. This is a good thing to believe, because - as long as you don't let your ego get tangled up and destroy your rational analysis - having this faith in yourself makes you more competitive and more successful.
Fine. I believe I'm the best in the world, too. In fact, I'm certain of it in my own mind. I believe that all the tactics I've investigated and analyzed and the tells and people skills I've examined give me an edge over others. But, even if I'm right, how much is this edge worth?
Most of the 325 or so players are going to be experienced. Any one of them can destroy me on a given hand. This is a no-limit tournament, right? You go all-in with aces against kings. King flops. It's all over, right? Or, worse, you move all-in with kings and aces calls. No king flops. It's all over, right?
What do I think the odds are against the best player winning - whether that's me or someone else? I'd say about 99 to 1. But that ain't bad, folks. That means, if you could play this event over and over for a million years, the top players would win more than three times their fair share. After all, a fair share for 325 players, is just one win every 325 tournaments. If you were to win once out of 100 winner-take-all tournaments, you'd be realizing a 325 percent return on investment, which is a 225 percent profit. That's my estimate of what a top player can achieve. Others think the best players are only 25-to-1 underdogs to win, but that is just plain wrong.
I just bet Mike Sexton (who, in my book, ranks among the top 10 players in the world) that of the 14 or so previous world champions expected to play, none will win this year. What odds would you lay? I laid Sexton 10-to-1 against a repeat champion, and I figure that I have way the best of it. Sexton thinks he has the best of it. As I said, he's a great player, but if he keeps offering me bets like this one, only one of us will need to keep playing poker. We could both live off his income, right?
Sadly, I've just learned that Ray Noren died. You may not know Ray, but he was a poker person of true integrity. He kept abreast of poker scams and cheating methods, and was always willing to share his knowledge with those he considered ethical.
In the early 1980's, Ray was a guest speaker at the first poker seminar in which I ever participated. This was a two-day event in Gardena, California, sponsored by Gambling Times magazine. It featuring Doyle Brunson, David Sklansky, and me, along with our guest experts. Ray's segment on poker cheating and what to look for was one of the highlights of the seminar.
There are few people like Ray in this industry. In recent years, he was a prop player at the Normandie Casino in Gardena. Although I seldom note the passing of players in this column, I thought you'd like to know about Ray. Ray Noren died of cancer a few weeks ago. It is a significant loss to our world of poker.
Recommended: Shut Up and Deal.
Also, of the 20 or so things I want to recommend to you, I'll pick two this issue. One is a new poker novel by Jesse May. It's called Shut Up and Deal. I generally am so irresponsible that I never get around to reviewing what I promise to review.
But so many people told me about this book (not to mention that it was sent to me by both the author himself and by Howard Schwartz at Gambler's Book Club) that I finally started reading it. This is one novel that truly captures the flavor of real-life poker. It's published by Anchor Books (a division of Doubleday), 217 pages, fast reading. Authors who write about poker, but who haven't played it or lived it, never seem to get it right. Jesse May really is a poker player. He's lived it. He gets it right.
Recommended: Turbo Texas Hold 'em 2.0.
For years I've been enthusiastic about Bob Wilson's Turbo Texas Hold 'em. For realistic practice on a computer, nothing else is this good. The benefits go way beyond practice, though. For serious players interested in delving into statistics, TTHE will run simulations of the situations you define and tell you to the cent how well a hand will fare.
You'll get statistical charts showing you everything you could possibly want to know about how you played. In this new version, the graphics are improved, the interface is even better, the online advisor is more intelligent, and many new features have been added. You can save up to 100 games in progress and return to them.
The playing strategies of the computer opponents are livelier and smarter. They take many more things into consideration, including the number of players and position. Just when you think you have these guys figured out, they're apt to be stealing your blind. I'm just beginning to investigate the full scope of Wilson Software's latest effort, but it's truly monumental. Turbo Texas Hold 'em will run on your PC under Windows. Cost is $89.95, and worth it. Wilson Software, P.O. Box 4087, Pinetop, AZ 85935. You can visit their web site at http://www.wilsonsoftware.com.
This is another one of those quick multiple-choice quizzes where I explain the answer after each question. This time, we only have space for one question, but it's a good one.
Assuming you're a skillful player, which of the following habits will cost you the most money in poker?
(A) Playing starting hands that are worse than average in an attempt to profit on later betting rounds.
(B) Failure to put on a "poker face" and thereby giving opponents a chance to read you.
(C) Playing with a short stack of chips when you can afford to buy more.
(D) Responding to a check by betting marginal hands "for value" into an opponent who often check-raises.
The answer is not (A), because a skillful player really can play starting hands that are weaker than what a typical opponent can profitably play.
But wait! I'm not saying that a skillful player should enter more pots than a typical loser does. What I'm saying is that the loser plays way too many pots. He plays all his good hands, most of his medium hands, and far too many of his weak hands. Of this assortment, only a few hands are profitable. He should only play those few.
But a skillful player can enter pots with the few hands that would be profitable for a weaker player, plus some slightly weaker hands that would be unprofitable for a weaker player. That's because the skillful player can sacrifice the theoretical loss and recapture that and more when opponents make mistakes on later betting rounds. This advice, while true, is very dangerous. Why dangerous? Because many players who are not quite as skillful as they imagine themselves to be will use this advice as an excuse to play more pots. Use this tip prudently, or not at all.
The answer is not (B), because a poker face (lack of any expression at all) is not terribly useful in everyday poker. Most of your opponents are not skilled in picking up tells, and - assuming you know what to do - you'll be better off trying to manipulate them through your speech, gestures, and expressions than by trying to prevent them from reading you.
The answer is not (C), because there can often be an advantage in playing with a short stack. The disadvantage, even when it exists, is not usually significant, except sometimes in no-limit or pot-limit games when you have a major advantage against most opponents. Even then, playing with a short stack is not as bad a policy as many pros think.
The answer is (D). Many professional players and most aspiring professional players make this mistake often. They wouldn't if they stopped to analyze what they were doing. You should seldom, if ever, bet a marginally strong hand "for value" into an opponent who frequently sandbags (check raises). Remember, under normal conditions, you're really pushing the limits when you make these marginal bets. You're trying to extract every extra cent worth of value from your hand. But when you bump that same hand into a player who has already checked and is known to sandbag, you're taking way the worst of it.
I believe this common mistake eats up a great portion of profits for very many pros. This single mistake may, also, keep many players out of action who would otherwise be small winners.
Here's where I usually give rewards and punishments based on how well you fared in the quiz. But, since there was only one question, we'll skip that today, if you don't mind. Besides, I have to go downstairs and play the World Series now. Did I say 99-to-1 against? Naw. Feels like about 5-to-1 right now.