A Little Light Poker

Thursday night Lee hosted a small-stakes poker game at his house. (Lee is one of my new friends whom I’ve mainly gotten to know through playing Magic.) There were 7 of us all together, and we started off with a little tournament: $10 per person in the kitty, top three spots paid. We started with $6000 in chips.

I had a pretty good session. My most memorable hand was one where three people called my $100 big blind, and I checked with 6-5o.

And the flop was 2-3-4. I’d flopped the nut straight.

Action was checked around to me, and I made a bet of around $200. Jamie (a new player I hadn’t met before) folded, and Daniel raised to $1000. Lee folded. It was a social game so there was a lot of chatting going on, but I thought for a bit and finally went all-in. Jamie folded, and Daniel thought for a lo-o-ong time. Finally he called.

And he winced when he saw my straight. Then I winced when I saw he had two pair – he had 2-3 – so he had 4 outs against me. But the turn and river didn’t help and I crippled his stack.

That as pretty nifty, though Daniel didn’t think so. He thought I had either top pair, or an overpair. I wouldn’t have gone in with top pair, and I would have been reluctant with any overpair less than 10s. But obviously he didn’t expect me to have a straight, he just ran into my moment of supreme luck. So I guess it was not a bad call on his part. I arguably could have just reraised rather than gone all-in since he probably would have folded anything less than two pair, but I felt the pot was already valuable enough that I wanted to take it down then.

I ended up getting knocked out in fourth place when I went all-in with Jacks, and Adam made the runner-runner wheel straight to beat me with his A-5. Gah.

We played a cash game after the tournament was over: $10 buy-ins, and nickel-dime blinds. So it was small stakes, but it was a good learning session. The cash game was basically Lee’s game as he won a couple of huge pots. I was pleased (on one hand I wasn’t in) that I correctly guessed that he had a set when he went all-in. I think he was surprised I had figured it out from his betting, alhough he may have figured I was just BSing him. I do make correct assessments like that from time to time, but it’s far from a consistent skill, unfortunately.

I checked out around 11:30 pm, but I had a great time. I’ve been enjoying getting to know these new friends of mine!

Magic TTP Draft: Red/Blue

My friends have been playing Magic from time to time lately, but I’ve been too busy to join in, due to my extremely busy March. But last night we got five people together for a Time Spiral/Planar Chaos booster draft (TTP), and I made the time to join in.

Last time I played I had wanted to end up playing Red/Blue, but blew it completely and ended up drafting a mediocre Black/White deck. Tonight I resolved to stick to my plan. Well, sticking to two colors from the outset isn’t so much a plan as a desire, but I definitely wanted to give it a try.

Fortunately, my first pack made it easy for me to jump into Red, as it contained Jaya Ballard, Task Mage. I’ve drafted Jaya before, and she’s a terrific card: She’s relatively inexpensive, is absolutely brutal against Blue decks, is a good general-purpose card against other decks, can wipe the board clean later in the game if things have gone against you, and she’s a 2/2, which makes her harder to kill and a semi-useful creature all by herself.

Another early pick was Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician, which made me think I might be able to assemble a decent goblin deck, maybe picking up one or two Empty the Warrens. Alas, I never saw a single ETW, and although many Time Spiral goblins are decent low-level creatures, it’s hard to assemble a deck around them. So I ended up never using Ib, or some of the goblins I drafted.

At the end of the first round of drafting, I was feeling pretty bummed about my deck. I had some Red and Blue cards, but my last five picks were from packs which no longer contained any such colors. I ended up drafting some White cards due to lack of choice, and getting Momentary Blink and Gustcloak Cavalier made me think I may need to go Red/White, or even three colors, but I wasn’t very enthused about it.

As it turned out, the second round ended up providing me with the backbone of my draft: A pair of Keldon Halberdiers. These are very nifty creatures who can do a lot of damage, and since they have first strike (i.e., they deal their damage before their opponents do), they’re very hard to kill through mere combat. They’re also suspendable, which means they can come out quite early in the game without worrying about ramping up your mana supply. I also ended up with a variety of creature-removal spells (Lightning Axe, Grapeshot, Disintegrate), which (as Subrata pointed out) by taking them out of the draft pool helped ensure that my Halberdiers would survive. (Had I thought about that further ahead I would have taken some Black creature removal too, just to get it out of the hands of my opponents.) Fortunately no one ended up with Sulfurous Blast, which would have been devastating to my deck.

The final round of draft was from Planar Chaos, and it netted me some very useful supporting creatures: A pair of Prodigal Pyromancers (i.e., Red Tims), a Brute Force (a Red Giant Growth, one of my favorite cards, due to its efficiency), and a Body Double (which could potentially be a third Halberdier, among other interesting things).

I also ended up with Timecrafting, and Keldon Marauders (to go with my earlier-drafted Clockspinning) which gave me some nifty tricks to play with the Suspend and Vanishing mechanics. I think WotC did a good job designing these mechanics, and they yield some powerful combinations in Limited drafts.

I also ended up with a pair of Reality Acids. I’m torn about this card: Anything you really need to spend it on is going to do you a lot of damage in the three turns it takes to play out, unless you speed it up with Timecrafting or Clockspinning, or you have a card to bounce it back to your hand (of which I had none), and it’s kind of expensive to cast on its own. I think it’s just not very useful without some cards to speed it up, although it is a useful card to discard to power Jaya Ballard.

So I ended up with a deck that was 2/3 Red and 1/3 Blue, which isn’t bad. One advantage of a lopsided deck like this is that when you have cards which take two Red to cast, you’re more likely to end up with that two red when you need it. I assembled a 40-card deck with 10 Mountains and 7 Islands and started playing.

My first game was against Adam, who was playing a Black-with-some-Blue deck, designed around the Madness mechanic with some cards to search for other cards. He was surprised that it worked so well, but he had more than enough creature removal to take care of my Halberdiers, which left me stuck in neutral, and eventually he accumulated enough creatures to run me down. He did have to burn through quite a few cards to do so, though.

I then moved on to playing Daniel, who was playing a Blue-with-some-Black deck. Daniel has a tendency to draft control decks which I think of as puzzles: They’re challenging to figure out both for himself and for his opponent. Since my deck contained a lot of creature removal, this meant we played a couple of long games. The first game I ended up mana-screwed (only two land), but Daniel inadvertantly helped me out by playing Braids, Conjurer Adept. This allowed me to play Jaya Ballard on my next upkeep. No one else had known I had her, which resulted in a round of “ooooh, aaahhh” from the room. That’s always good to hear! I managed to plunk down a Halberdier as well as some of my supporting creatures, and Jaya and Lightning Axe picked off some of his big creatures. I Grapeshotted one of his morphed creatures, which turned out to be a Slipstream Serpent, which probably saved my bacon. At that point it was only a matter of time.

The second game was similar to this, although I got a Halberdier suspended on the first turn, and spent several turns Clockspinning the Keldon Marauders to keep them around smacking him for 3 – a terrific cheap combo early in the game. The game went on for a while when he killed some of my creatures, but I built up too big a lead to overcome, especially when I brought Jaya out again and between her and the Pyromancers was able to finish him off. (Disintegrate, by the way, is a very useful card to kill the Weatherseed Totem, since it removes the Totem from the game when it’s a creature, this preventing it from returning to its owner’s hand. This probably ensured my victory in the second game, since a 5/3 trampling creature might have let Daniel come back against me.)

Next I played Subrata. I’m still not sure exactly what his draft strategy was, but he ended up playing me against his reworked deck, which was either 4- or 5-color, and contained Slivers and at least one Ivory Giant. I played Subrata in two games, and basically Halberdier’ed him to death. The first game we both got out quite a few creatures, and I happened to get both of my Halberdiers out by the time my Veiling Oddity came in from being Suspended to render my creatures unblockable for a turn, which allowed me to hit him for 12 points. He retaliated, but I had two untapped creatures (a Pyromancer and a Crookclaw Transmuter that I’d flashed in during my attack to do one more point of damage to him), so he only did 6 points to me, and then I could swing again and it was over. I think the second game was similar, and Subrata was mana-screwed as well, which made it shorter.

By this time it was 10:30 and I was getting ready to leave, but my final opponent, Andrew, convinced me to play one more game. Unfortunately it wasn’t much of a game, as we both mulliganed out hands, and then both got mana-screwed. I ended up with five 3-cost cards in my hand and only 2 lands when he got his third land and just ran me over. That’s the way it goes sometimes. But by then I really did need to leave, so no rematch.

Overall I was both surprised and happy with how well my deck worked. I probably could have drafted even a little bit better, but I’m still trying to get into the mindset of thinking ahead and thinking more broadly when doing the draft. But really it’s hard to go wrong with powerful creatures and lots of creature removal, as well as two or three cards which can finish off the game (and Jaya is powerful enough that she’s useful both early and late).

Now I have to knuckle down to prep for my fantasy baseball draft (on April 1, heh-heh), but next month I should be ready to try to build on my success last night!

Very Limited

We’ve been playing semi-regular games of Magic lately, I’m almost sorry to admit. Lately we’ve been doing booster drafts using the two most recent expansions, Time Spiral and Planar Chaos.

We had another one on Sunday, a 7-person draft at Subrata‘s. My goal was to have a better all-around draft than I’ve had recently, drafting a deck with more possibilities and fewer limitations than in the past. For instance, I’ve read up on the color combinations and how they work in a TTP draft (a draft from two Time Spiral packs and one Planar Chaos pack).

Unfortunately, I really flubbed it this time around, and ended up drafting a Black/White deck, which is really one of the weakest combos. Heck, Black is an all-around disappointing color in Time Spiral, and Black/White together lacks both clever tricks to play, and big monsters to crush the opposition with. I ended up drafting a halfway decent deck, but mainly because I sort of backed into a couple of tricks which could lead to victory if I could stall the opponent long enough.

Nonetheless, I ended up drafting a number of cards which just weren’t as useful as they looked: Expensive but underpowered creatures, and some artifacts that look cool, but in practice don’t provide enough bang for the buck. So overall I didn’t have as much flexibility as I’d hoped. Sigh.

Practice makes perfect, I guess. But I still need a lot of practice.

Vegas Trip Poker Roundup

A roundup of my poker exploits on our recent trip to Las Vegas.

Okay, a roundup of my poker exploits on our recent trip to Las Vegas.

My First Tournament

After a fashion, the highlight of poker on the trip was playing playing the 11 am $65 no-limit hold ’em tournament at the MGM Grand. This was actually my first experience playing no-limit hold ’em; all of the cash games I play are low limit, which means the amount you can bet in each round is strictly structured. In no-limit, of course, you can bet any amount at any time up to your total chip stack.

This tournament provides everyone with $2000 in chips for their buy-in. Blinds start at $25/$50, and go up every 20 minutes. This is a very fast tournament; by the fifth level, someone was going all-in on every hand because of the escalating blinds and antes. Moreover, only about 10 hands (i.e., one full orbit around the table) were played per level, so everyone would post only one set of blinds before they went up. The tournament started with 6 tables of 10 players each, and an alternates list who would sit when someone got knocked out. I was alternate #2, and was seated about halfway through the first round. Ultimately there were about 95 buy-ins, including people who got knocked out and rebought as an alternate. One guy next to be rebought twice. The top 8 finishers won money.

I sat down and my very first hand I was dealt a pair of 7s. So I raised to $300, everyone folded to the big blind, and the big blind went all-in. He had about $900 left, so I could either surrender my $300 raise, or potentially lose half my stack. I dithered for a moment, and decided to fold.

Over the next 40 minutes my stack steadily dwindled, as I never managed to hit anything on the flop. Finally I got down to about $1100, with blinds of $100/$200, and played J-To. I flopped two pair and pushed all-in, getting two callers. One guy made a straight on the turn, but then another ten came on the river giving me the winning full house. I had tripled up and was still in it! I went all-in again not longer after that with A-K, and everyone folded so I won the blinds and antes. I managed to win a couple more pots, and when the first break came after the fourth round I had about $5500, which I judged to be above-average.

Shortly after the break I went all-in against a short stack, and a larger stack went all-in as well, forcing me to go all-in, along with a fourth player. The short stack won the hand, but I came in second, and since I had him covered I picked up the rest of the chips, and came out slightly ahead.

Shortly before 1:00 we were down to 3 tables, and a woman in early position went all-in. I judged her to be in a position with the escalating blinds where she felt she had to push, and I looked down at… a pair of 7s. Again. I figured while she might have a bigger pair, more likely she had two big cards (which would make us a coin flip as to who won), or maybe even an Ace-rag (low card). So I called her. She had A-T. The flop and turn didn’t help her, so I was about 7-to-1 to win the hand, but a Ten hit on the river, she doubled up, and I was crippled. I went out the next hand when I pushed with T-7 and lost easily. (I probably should have waited the 3 hands I had left before the blinds hit me to see if I could get something better, but that wasn’t the hand that killed me.)

Overall I was very happy with my play, finishing 24th out of 95. I had some luck, but I think I played fairly well, too. This tournament is so fast-paced that luck probably oughtweighed skill overall. (Games that emphasize skill tend to have higher buy-ins, $150 or more.) But I think I got a feel for how the game is played, and I had fun. And that’s what counts.

Cash Games

I played about 9 hours of cash games, almost all of them at $2/4 limits, and one at $3/6 limits. The ritzy poker rooms tend to start at $4/8, and I don’t think I’m quite good enough to go to those limits. I’m still not a winning player, after all.

We made a tour of poker rooms on the Strip, and there’s a lot of variety. I think the MGM has the nicest room of those I’ve played in: It’s a space between the sports book and a bar, with walls on both sides, nice tables, and good dealers. (Debbi noticed that all poker rooms in the casinos seem to be right near the sports book. I wonder why that is? Do sports gamblers like to play poker between making bets? Do poker players like to bet on sports during their breaks? Is it just convenient for the casino somehow?)

By contrast, the Excalibur‘s poker room is right in the middle of one of the main access ways. Even though all poker rooms prohibit smoking, the Excalibur’s therefore gets a lot of ambient smoke, which is not so great. Bally’s is similar. The Luxor and Flamingo put their rooms in corners at the edge of the casino, which is sort of a compromise. Mandalay Bay and the Rio put them in separate rooms which are open on one or two sides; the Bellagio and Venetian do something similar, but dress up the room to make it stand out more. And Caesar’s Palace and Harrah’s have completely separate rooms for poker.

Some poker rooms have snazzy video waiting lists, which makes it very easy to figure out what games are going on and whether there’s any wait. I was more willing to try new rooms when they had these screens; some rooms don’t have visible waiting lists, which deterred me somewhat from trying them.

Overall, I think Excalibur and Luxor have the easiest tables to play at of those I’ve tried, while Caesar’s is the toughest. The MGM is somewhere in the middle. Of course, I probably don’t have a large enough sample to draw any firm conclusions.

My worst round was at the $3/6 game at Caesar’s. I didn’t play real well, didn’t have a lot of luck either, and lost $73 in an hour. Ouch. I had a session at the Excalibur that was about half as bad, but in that case I just never got any cards. On the other hand, I had another session at the Excalibur which cancelled out the bad one. And I was up-and-down at the MGM, and had a bit of bad luck at the end of a session at the Flamingo which left me down a little after being up a bunch. Bummer.

The more I played, the more I had to think about: I realized why some people say that slowplaying two pair is a bad idea, since it’s much easier for someone to beat you. Two pair is a good hand, but you do want to knock out people on draws. I need to be more careful playing two overcards to the flop, as I think I’m too quick to call bets in that situation, or bet out myself. Finally, I need to pay better attention to the odds, as I think I fold in some situations where I could continue.

The one hand I keep coming back to is this: In one session I kept being dealt Ace-rag. It was a loose and very passive game, so I started playing some of these hands. One hand I had A-7 offsuit. The slop was Q-8-2 with two clubs, and I had the Ace of clubs. One player bet, and I thought for a moment and folded. But in retrospect I think I should have continued. The reason is that any bettor probably had either top pair or a flush draw. If I hit an Ace, then I will have a better top pair, and since I have the Ace of clubs, anyone on a flush draw would not be helped in that case. However, if a club hits, someone on a flush draw would make it, but I’d have a redraw to the nut flush, if a fourth club came. With 7 bets already in the pot, I think I had the odds to call, and it was likely that there would be enough callers that I could continue to the river, as well. So I should have called. And indeed, the next two cards were clubs, and the winner had a flush that I would have beaten had I stayed in.

Ironically, the very next hand I had A-6 offsuit, the flop was like A-K-3 with the K-3 being of my Ace’s suit. This time I did go to the river, and my top pair beat my opponent’s pair of Kings.

Anyway, I had fun, even though I didn’t win. I look forward to the day that not every poker session leaves me with more things to think about and work on than to be happy about and proud of. Maybe someday…

Magic Tournament

One thing I probably haven’t mentioned much in 9 years of journalling is that I was once sucked into the maw of Magic: The Gathering, the original collectible card game often referred to as “gamer crack”. (See also the Wikipedia article.)

For me, it started in November 1995 when I broke up with my girlfriend at the time, and some of my friends in Madison hauled me out to Gene‘s house and introduced me to Magic. I played regularly until around 1998, and a very little bit (mostly with Ceej) when I moved to California, but haven’t really played in years. By contrast, Subrata and Mark started playing before me. This mostly means that the decks I played with were considerably newer than – and often less powerful than – those Subrata and Mark played with. So we have fairly different memories of playing. Subrata, at least, actually played in Magic tournaments, while I just played with friends.

For those of you who might be Magic geeks, when I started playing the set Ice Age had been released the previous summer, so that was mainly what I played with. The Chronicles and Homelands expansions were also available, and Fallen Empires – which had apparently been wildly overprinted – was available everywhere at deep discounts. While I played, I picked up the expansions Alliances, Mirage, Visions, Weatherlight, and Tempest, and then decided I basically had enough cards. I only ever played under the Fourth and Fifth Edition rules. I guess the game has changed rather a lot since those days.

I remember my then-cow-orker Mike and I went in on a box of Mirage booster packs, which cost us about $90 (i.e., $45 each), and we spent several hours after work going through all the packs exploring the cards and trading back and forth until we’d split them fairly evenly. Ah, fond memories. I still have all my cards, since it’s a good game, and I figured I would still play it from time to time.

Anyway, I bring all this up because Subrata put together a day of Magic gaming last Saturday: He had seven other people come over, and we had a booster draft from three booster packs (two Ice Age and one Mirage), and then we assembled decks (with whatever land we wanted) and played for a few hours. I’d never done this sort of deck construction before, and it was actually a lot of fun. I ended up with a mainly black-and-green deck, with a touch of blue.

Playing went somewhat less well, because I had a number of expensive creatures which were pretty good if I could get them out, but the deck was susceptible to faster decks. So I had a couple of successful games, but got pretty badly pounded in my other matches. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about deck construction, so I’m clearly just very rusty.

On the bright side, I did get to meet a couple of people who are still active Magic players, and they’re even on my floor at work! One of them said they sometimes get together for booster draft evenings or weekend games, and asked if I’d be interested. I said I would, as time permits. I don’t necessarily want to get on the Magic roller-coaster again, but I wouldn’t mind playing that sort of game from time to time.

Besides which, for all that Magic has the reputation of being a big money sink, I would have to buy one hell of a lot of cards for it to come anywhere close to my comic book habit! And I am curious now what some of the recent sets have been like…

Rating the Las Vegas Poker Tournaments

This is pretty neat for those of us who play poker and visit Las Vegas: A day-by-day list of Las Vegas poker tournaments, with difficulty ratings. (The sidebar has links to similar pages for other locales. None yet for northern California.)

For reference, here’s a map of hotel-casinos on the Strip.

The patience factor and skill levels referenced in those tables are interesting: “Low-skill” tournaments are ones which have rapidly increasing blinds and are much more affected by luck, while “high-skill” tournaments last longer and provide more opportunity for skilled players to gain an edge through smart play. Which makes sense if you think about it. Moreover, it seems like the high-skill tournaments tend to be more expensive to enter, which also makes sense since the poker rooms need to charge more for the expected hourly use of their tables by the tournament.

(Via Wil Wheaton.)

Den of Inequity

While Debbi and her friends went off to a crafts faire today, I decided to go try my hand at poker again.

Oh boy, it did not go well.

Unlike other recent sessions, I was picking up plenty of good starting hands. I got dealt A-K four times, for instance. This is a big hand which you’ll get dealt about once every 80 hands, and since I played for about 2 hours – around 70-80 hands – I was way ahead of that curve. As I understand it, the way you make money with A-K is by flopping top-pair-top-kicker, which will happen about 1 time in 3. Even if you miss, if you raised before the flop then you will usually be getting odds to call a bet to see the turn, when you might still pair one of your cards. Since I almost always raise with A-K before the flop, winning a big hand 1 time in 3 should more than compensate for losing the other two times.

Guess how many times I paired a card by the turn? If you guessed “zero”, then you’re right. That’s bad luck.

I also got dealt some pocket pairs, and although I never managed to flop a set (3 of a kind, which should happen about 1 time in 8 ), I did win a big pot with Jacks, and a small one with Sevens.

What killed me were the A-K hands, and then having a good hand which lost to an even better hand several times. The latter are the ones where you really take a beating, two pair losing to a set, or a big pair losing to a full house. Painful. Overall I ended up losing my whole buy-in for the session, which was certainly discouraging.

But I felt that I played well, which was encouraging. I didn’t chase bad draws, and I didn’t do things like play middle pair with no redraws against someone who clearly had top pair. So I wasn’t playing hands and losing and thinking, “Geez, why did I do that?”

And I even had some fun moments: One hand I played A-Q, and flopped a full house! Action was slow on the flop, so I just called the one bet, and I started betting on the turn, and I think I got as much action as I could reasonably have hoped.

Another time I checked my big blind with A-3, and the flop was A-A-2. The turn and river were an 8 and a J, and one other player was betting. I suspected he had the other Ace, but I thought he might be bluffing after checking around on the flop. It turned out he had A-5, and neither of our kickers played, so we split the pot.

My last hand of the day, I played J-9s, and flopped an open-ended straight draw. I suspected at least one other person in the hand had a big pocket pair, but lots of people saw the flop despite a raise. I got pot odds to call to the river, but I missed my straight, darnit. I even went all-in on my last bet! The other two players at the showdown had Kings and Aces, and the rockets took the pot. Just bad luck.

So I decided that was enough for me. There ain’t no justice!

Incidentally, I went to Garden City Casino, where I haven’t been in a while. They always seem a little cramped compared to some other casinos – they pack a lot of games into their floor space – but I like them well enough. I hadn’t been in quite a while, but I’ll have to go again.

Change My Luck

I’m fortunate to have this whole week off from work, so today I went up to have lunch with Debbi at Specialties (mmm, yummy cookies). Afterwards, since I was in the area, I went to Lucky Chances to play poker, since it’s rarely convenient for me to get up there.

Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving was surprisingly busy, although most of the people there were older than I am – certainly at my table. Fortunately, it was not so busy that I had to wait long for a table.

I’d been reading up some more on low-limit Hold ‘Em, and was especially interested in this Mike Caro article on how many novice players fold too often, so I wanted to try to fold less often once I was in a pot, since I suspect I get pushed off pots too easily.

The table was medium-loose (maybe 4-6 people typically seeing the flop), and passive (people didn’t usually bet after the flop unless they had a pretty big hand). As you will often hear me complain, I didn’t get dealt many pocket pairs, and after 2-1/2 hours I’d only been dealt one, a pair of Kings which held up. I mentioned this to the guy on my left, and promptly got dealt a pair of 2’s (which were good when a 2 came on the turn), and another pair of kings shortly thereafter (which made a winning straight).

I had a lot of luck with straights, limping into pots with things like J-Ts (that’s “Jack-Ten suited”, for any of my non-poker-playing readers who have gotten this far) and making a straight. One thing about straights – unlike flushes – is that they’re much harder to see just looking at the board, so they can be a sneaky way to get more money into a pot you’re likely to win.

I probably lost a little money in some small mis-plays. For instance, not betting my straight at one point when I was fearful of a full house when the board paired on the turn. I need to stop playing from fear, I really do. Also, when I had my pair of 2’s, everyone checked on the flop, the turn was a 2, as I said, the guy on my right bet, and I raised, and everyone folded. Probably if I’d just called I could have gotten at least one more bet – maybe more – out of the pot. My thinking was that I was at risk playing against a higher set, but really, the odds of that are not likely.

My biggest mistake was one pot where I thought I had a good chance to push people off the pot with middle pair (a pair of 9s, with a King on the board), but I wasn’t able to push off the guy with a King (despite his poor kicker), and although I had a straight draw too, it didn’t hit. Probably I was too optimistic there.

Overall, I finished ahead by a few bucks. I felt like I played much better than I have in recent months, not a big “aha!” session, but just some progressive improvement. If I can think through what I’m doing better while I’m at the table, I ought to be able to do even better. But, you know, it’s a start.


When I go to a cardroom to play poker, I will usually pick up the poker magazines which are available for free there. I think my favorite read in all of them is Mike Caro’s column for Poker Player, which is always focused and insightful. A recent column, “Rent”, happened to discuss a topic that had been on my mind recently.

The core of the article is how poker rooms make money:

So, how does the cardroom or casino make money? Two ways. One is rake. The dealer, acting on the house’s behalf, takes money from the pots. Usually, this is a percentage – often five or 10 percent up to a ceiling, such as $4. Beyond that, in most public cardrooms, no more rake is taken from large pots. The other is rent. With rent, you’re buying your seat, typically by the hour or half-hour, and nothing is extracted from the pots you win.

He goes on to discuss the ramifications of rake and rent.

I was pleased to see that I had correctly figured out that you want the rake to be low relative to the limits at which you are playing. The rooms around here tend to charge a $4 rake at both the 2/4 and the 3/6 limit tables (less if the table is shorthanded, which is rarely the case). Consequently, I decided to stop playing the 2/4 games because (1) My observation is that the skill level is essentially the same at both levels, and (2) The rake is relatively lower at the 3/6 tables. Of course, it might be that my first observation is wrong, but I don’t think so. And of course I could win or lose more money at the 3/6 table than the 2/4 table, but the difference is not enough to matter to me. (I think if I moved to a 6/12 table – the next highest common limit around here – then I’d both face tougher competition, and risk losing more than I want to.)

So I was happy to see the well-respected “Mad Genius of Poker” agree with me on that point.

(By the way, poker rooms in Las Vegas tend to have a slightly different – and better for the player – rake structure. They tend to charge 10% of the pot up to a maximum, usually the same $4 at the limits I play. So in Vegas for pots under $40 the rake is lower. I only mention this in case any readers are surprised at the flat $4 rake I described above. Yes, it really is different.)

But I’m still puzzling out another point he also makes in the article. First of all, he notes that there is a third class of payment to the casino:

By the way, there is another kind of rent game that most players confuse with a rake game. That’s where the dealer position puts up a certain amount of money each hand, say $4, and that goes to the house in advance of the deal. That may seem like a rake, but it isn’t. It’s just rent by the hand, instead of by the hour or half hour.

The time I played at the Lucky Chances casino, they were using this form of rent: In a 3/6 game there was a $3 big blind, a $1 small blind, and a $3 dealer button payment. The $4 from the button and the small blind went to the house, and the big blind went into the pot. At other casinos, such as Bay 101, there’s only a $3 big blind and a $1 small blind, all of which goes to the house.

My thinking is this: If you never put in any money, and lose every time you check in the big blind, then you are paying $7 per orbit (passing of the dealer button around the table) to sit at the rent-per-hand table, but only $4 per orbit at the rake table. So in that case, the rake table clearly seems preferable. Of course, if you’re playing so badly that you never win a pot, then probably you shouldn’t be playing poker.

But what if you do play hands and win pots? In that case, your cost at the rent-per-hand table is $4 per orbit plus whatever pots you win minus whatever you invest in pots you lose. And at rake tables it’s… $4 per orbit plus whatever pots you win minus whatever you invest in pots you lose. So are they exactly the same, really?

Not quite. At a rent-per-hand table, there is $3 already in the pot before any bidding begins, whereas at a rake table you know that the $4 on the table as the blinds will disappear once the flop is dealt, so it’s not really “in the pot”. The other difference is that at a rent-per-hand table there are three players who get a discount to see the flop (two who already have one full bet in, and one who has $1 in), while at a rake table there are only two such players. This probably encourages a slightly looser table, which in theory should be better for the good poker player. On the other hand, the player with the extra bet in has the most advantageous position (in Hold ‘Em), which doesn’t seem like a good thing for the rest of the table.

So which is the better table for the player? I don’t know.

I suspect that Caro’s rent-per-hand scenario is actually different from what Lucky Chances does. Perhaps he means that the dealer’s payment does not count toward the bet, i.e. it’s not truly a blind bet, but a straight payment to the house. I’m still not sure whether this sort of table is better or worse than a raked table, though.

I do know that I feel like I prefer rake games over rent-per-hand games (I’ve never played a rent-by-time game). However, I do not consider myself a good poker player, so my opinion may not hold for people who are good poker players.

(p.s.: I have heard that Lucky Chances was going to change to a rake system over the summer. But I haven’t been back to see if that happened. I actually liked the place; the only reason I haven’t gone back is that Bay 101 is just flat-out much easier for me to drive to.)

And Sometimes, I Play Poker

On our trip to Las Vegas last January, I started playing poker, and have played it from time to time since then. In California, poker and other card games are legal, and the Bay Area features several card rooms. I play low-limit Texas Hold ‘Em, being not quite confident enough to try some of the spread limit games that go up to $100 or $200 around here.

At this point I would characterize myself as a “mediocre” poker player. I am not a winning player, but I play a tight game which keeps me from losing a lot. I actually feel I should loosen up my game a little bit more than I do. On the other hand, I watch people playing a loose game win some huge pots, and then steadily lose them over the next couple of hours. Mostly I envy their confidence, and I’m continually trying to remind myself that the money doesn’t matter to me. (And at these limits, it doesn’t, really. I’ve lost less at poker this year than one can spend on a new iPod.)

Last night I went out to Bay 101 for the first time in a while to play. Bay 101 is clean, spacious, has plenty of parking, and is always busy. (Right now it looks like their non-poker room is being renovated.) I was lucky to get there just as a new 3/6 table opened up, so I had no wait, compared to the 30-to-60 minute wait I usually have. This was the first time I’ve sat at a table as it was starting, so I learned that the players at a new table draw cards and high card starts as the dealer – the most advantageous position. I drew the high card (the Jack of Spades), which was a nice treat.

The table was loose, tending to be passive before the flop, and moderately aggressive after the flop, by which I mean: People who connected with the flop would bet, and other people would fold unless they had good draws. One player who would bet regularly with both good hands and nothing at all, and he won some hands both ways, but also lost quite a bit.

I had a pretty mediocre night. It seemed like when I played a hand, it usually didn’t go anywhere. Only once did I fold after the flop and then regret it, when my pair of 7s on the flop turned into trips on the turn. That was annoying, but since I had only second pair on the flop and was facing quite a bit of betting with few outs, I was annoyed but didn’t feel I’d played it badly. Being annoyed in those circumstances is one of those things I have to work on.

I had one really good hand: I was dealt a pair of Jacks, and everyone bet the limit before the flop. The flop came three undercards, with some straight possibilities. The turn and river left a board something like 3-5-5-8-8, and the guy on my right was betting into it, so I was obviously pretty concerned that someone had a full house. But Slansky says you shouldn’t fold a big pot if you think you might have the best hand, and I wasnt convinced anyone was playing a 5 or an 8. So I called, and I won! Go me!
I finished the night down money, mainly because of one hand where I lost a bundle due to a combination of bad luck and judgment. My feeling is that I still need to play more aggressively, and also perhaps that I need to play a little more loosely, especially when I’m at a table full of calling stations.

One weird thing about poker is that one session isn’t really enough to get good results or bad results due to your play; the variation in cards is too high. So I can have a losing session and feel like I was just unlucky, as opposed to playing poorly. But I can have a few hands where I feel I played really well. This is rather different from most other games I play. Overall I think I’ve played enough hands to know I’m not a good player. But I might yet improve. It’s a hard game to master, though. And I haven’t even played any no limit poker yet (which I’ll probably reserve for when I play tournaments, because playing no limit with my own money is a little too scary for me right now!).