This is the seventh installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
‘In the long run we are all dead,’ John Maynard Keynes once said. Poker players are tormented by this truth. To a far greater extent than in other sports, they depend on the long run for their skill to manifest itself. But damn, it takes really long to come.
Let me illustrate that with a thought experiment. Say you run three tournaments, of tennis, chess and poker, with 100 recreational players of equal ability in each. The chance of any random player winning the tournament would logically be 1 in 100 times, or 1%. If you remove one player from each tournament and replace him with Rafa Nadal, Magnus Carlsen and Phil Ivey respectively, what would their chances be? Barring injury or natural catastrophe, I think it would be fair to expect Nadal and Carlsen to win their tournaments 100% of the time, maybe 99%. Ivey would at best win the poker tournament 5% of the time. That’s actually optimistic, and represents a return of five times that of the average player, but an alien watching the tournament from outer space would have no way to tell who the best poker player in the world is.
This enhanced role of luck is what keeps losing players playing – every dog really does have his day in poker – and makes the game so juicy. But it means that skillful players have to do something about that damn long run. And there’s only one thing to do: to play as much as possible, so that the long run comes closer. In poker terminology, this is called ‘putting in volume’, and every professional poker player could practically chant this mantra to keep himself going: Om Namah Volume.
This is why online poker is such a big deal. From the recreational player’s point of view, it allows convenience and ease of access – he can play anytime and anywhere he feels like. From a professional’s point of view, he can put in volume. In an hour, you will be dealt around three times the number of hands at an online table than a live table. Plus, you can play many tables at the same time. Therefore, if you are playing 10 tables at a time, you get dealt 30 times the number of hands than you would over an equivalent live session. This has two consequences. One, the long run is compressed, and variance (the role of luck) is evened out much sooner. Two, you learn much faster in this environment, as you are getting so much practice and exposure to situations.
Someone who grinds online multitable tournaments (MTTs) for a living will probably play 30 to 40 tournaments in a single night, and have around 10 tables running at any given time. To further counter variance, he will probably be staked by a staking stable, which will pay his buyins and take 50% of his profits. (This ensures a particuarly dry spell doesn’t wipe you out, and your stakers are usually expert players who also teach you out of self interest.) Indeed, the rationale behind running a staking stable is the same as that for putting in volume: ten people playing a collective 10k tournaments per month brings the long run closer than one guy playing 1k tournaments. To turn a tiny edge into a big profit, volume is essential.
Luck plays a huge part in our everyday lives as well. Being in the right place at the right time counts for a lot, and factors beyond our control will often determine the course of our lives. What’s the remedy to this? As the cliché goes, to try, try again. To put in the volume, and keep behaving optimally, even when the reward seems elusive. This is harder than it seems – Bloomberg recently estimated that 80% of all startups fail within the first 18 months, but even if you have the temperament to be a serial entrepreneur, how many businesses can you practically start till one works out? (In this context, VCs are equivalent to staking stables.) In poker, we can put in the volume and play millions of hands. In life, all we can do is keep trying and hope variance is on our side in the limited time we have. Unless you believe in reincarnation, in which case in the long run you’re just reborn.
This is the sixth installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
Jose Mourinho would make an outstanding poker player. I’ve been reading The Special One, a controversial biography of Mourinho by Diego Torres, and in it Torres reveals the set of guidelines Mourinho prepared for his players while coaching Real Madrid. Here it is:
“1) The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors. 2) Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition. 3) Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes. 4) Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake. 5) Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake. 6) Whoever has the ball has fear. 7) Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.”
This is true not just of football, but of poker and most other sports. You do not need to do outstanding things or play brilliantly to win; you simply need to make less mistakes than your opponent. Good players will avoid making mistakes themselves; great players will provoke mistakes from others, by taking them out of their comfort zone or setting them challenges they cannot respond to.
Mourinho has mastered this art with the teams he has coached: his teams typically play deep, defend vigorously, don’t obsess about possession, and are incisive on the counter-attack, in those moments between their opponents losing possession and regaining defensive shape: pouncing on one mistake and provoking another. The counterpunchers are on the ascendance this season, and the tiki taka possession-oriented teams like Bayern and Barcelona are experiencing a temporary downswing, but their play is also tailored to inducing mistakes from their opponents: Pep Guardiola, in his time as Barcelona’s coach, would spend hours before each game watching DVDs of his forthcoming opponents to figure out weaknesses to exploit – or as a poker player would put it, leaks.
In cricket, too, captains set fields to dry up runs in areas that a batsman likes to score runs in, and instruct bowlers to attack his perceived weak areas. Batsmen counter this by moving around in the crease to put the bowler off his line and length – and maybe take a chance or two early on with flamboyant shots to rattle him off his rhythm. Exploit weaknesses; induce errors. In the ongoing IPL, the most telling statistic about Glenn Maxwell, to me, is not that he’s hit the most boundaries, but that he’s had the most wides bowled to him. With his periodic switch-hitting and use of the width of the crease, he takes bowlers out of their comfort zones.
The current world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, is a genius at making the other guy make mistakes. Carlsen is already being considered the greatest player of all time, and the one aspect that sets him apart from anyone else in chess history is what experts call his ‘nettlesomeness’. In perfectly drawn positions, in the late middle game or endgame, he plays on and on, probing, asking difficult questions that demand perfect answers, till his opponents crack. Vishy Anand made some startling blunders during their recent World Championship match, but Carlsen said after it was over that he gave himself credit for Anand’s mistakes.
In poker, he who makes the least mistakes makes the most money. And one of the most essential skills in poker is identifying the mistakes other people make and exploiting them. Does someone fold too much? Or call too much? Or play too many hands out of position? Or give up on a pot as a preflop raiser if the first barrel is called and they haven’t hit? After spending a while at any table, you should be able to spot such tendencies and tailor your play to exploit them. You should also watch out for them in your own play.
Equally, you should learn to take players out of their comfort zones. A tight, ABC player will always get rattled if a loose-aggressive player keeps attacking him, 3-betting him light preflop, applying pressure postflop. Someone who plays scared money will panic if you keep inflating the pot against him, tempting him to stack off with marginal holdings. And so on.
Avoiding mistakes is easier said than done, of course, because to play correctly you have to know what correct play is. Sometimes that seemingly spewy check-raise on the turn with just a gutty against a capped range is the optimal play. The obvious or the safe play could be sub-optimal. Poker is a complex game where it’s incredibly hard to avoid making mistakes – but that’s true of all sports. That’s the beauty of it.
This is the fifth installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
Location: The ravines of Ramgarh. Gabbar Singh is sitting on a rock, peering into his laptop, calculating equities on Pokerstove. Kalia comes up to him. ‘Sardar,’ he says. ‘I just lost a big hand. I need to tell you about it. See, I had AJo, and…’ Gabbar puts up his hand and stops him. Tense silence. Then he growls, ‘Kitne big blind the?’
Gabbar’s response is spot on. Whenever someone tries to tell me about a hand they played without first mentioning stack sizes, I feel like picking up my rifle and making them dance on broken glass. Then, as their feet bleed and tears stream down their pathetic faces, I tell them, ‘Okay, now tell me your bad-beat story with stack of indeterminate size.’
The truth is that among the factors to consider at the start of any hand, the most basic one is stack sizes. The hand you are dealt comes later. For example, let’s consider two situations in a tournament. One, the blinds are 50-100, and you have 30k chips. Two, the blinds are 750-1500, with 200 antes, and you have 30k chips. Even though you have the same number of chips in each case, your stack size in both cases is massively different – and this affects the hands you play. In the first situation; you have 300 big blinds (bb). In the second, you have a 20bb stack. Very deep; quite short.
Now imagine two hands: 56s and AJo. With a raise and a call behind me, at 300bb I’d much rather have 56s than AJo. At 20bb, I’d snap-fold 56s and probably shove AJo. The relative strength of the hands, and the profitability of playing them, is almost entirely determined by stack sizes. The most common mistake beginning players make, in fact, is when they play in a manner inappropriate to their stack size.
Suited connectors and small pairs, for example, make big hands infrequently, but when they do, you can stack your opponent (by busting his aces, hopefully, to put him on monkey tilt). It is correct to play them only when you have huge implied odds; i.e. enough chips behind to win. For example, you will only hit a set one in eight times. And when you do hit, you won’t get paid off every time because your opponent also has to have a hand, and the willingness to stack off with it. While some players recommend you set-mine only if you get implied odds of 15-1 or better, I’d say you need to be much deeper, especially in tough games. At 300bb, I’m always calling 22. At 20bb, or even 40bb, it makes no sense to do so. It’s the same with suited connectors.
Hands like AJo have the opposite problem: that of reverse implied odds. When you’re deep, if you do hit your hand and get action, chances are that you are behind. At 300bb, if you hit an ace and your opponent comes at you hard,you will very often be outkicked. If you hit a J, no decent player is paying you much with KJ, but KK and QQ could hurt you. You either win a small pot, or lose a big one. If stacks go in at 300bb, the winning hand will rarely be your pair. At 20bb, one pair, especially a big one, is usually enough.
The fundamental difference between cash games and tournaments is that of stack sizes. Stacks are usually deep in cash games – I like to sit 250bb deep at least. In tournaments, after the first few levels, a 50bb stack seems like a luxury, and you spend much time navigating the spaces between 30bb and 15bb. The presence of antes means that the pot is usually worth stealing, and to be a successful tournament player, you have to master how to play different stack sizes in different situations. When – and with what ranges – is it correct to shove, reshove, induce, raise-fold? You cannot be a winning player if you do not master these nuances – and it begins with understanding stack sizes.
Spoiler alert: I shall finish this column by revealing the ending of Sholay. Stacks were 300bb deep. Gabbar had AA. Jai and Viru had 56hh. The flop was K78 with two hearts. Guess what happened next.
This is the fourth installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
If TV shows and movies can start with a song, why not a column? I present to you ‘Sweet Dopamine’ (sing to the tune of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’):
I’ve been playing all night and I’m down a lot I’m taking part in every single pot There’s something inside me that just won’t let me fold The voice of reason says it’s time to go But I keep pushing chips, I’m in the flow I’m addicted and I don’t like my turkey cold Woh, oh oh, sweet dopamine Oooaah, aah aah aah, sweet love of mine.
My neurotransmitters are out of whack Every single time that I lose my stack I buy in again till I’m 1000bb deep I call king-high, I shove bottom pair I cold-5-bet-jam with complete air I’m losing my mind while the rest of the world is asleep Woh, oh oh, sweet dopamine Oooaah, aah aah aah, sweet love of mine.
How can we quit? How can we quit now? How can we quit (x 2) sweet dopamine.
When I first started playing poker seriously, my friends and family thought I had gotten addicted to gambling. After a while, seduced by a combination of my arguments and my results, the latter probably more persuasive than the former, they accepted that poker was, indeed, a game of skill. But this is not the whole truth.
All games and sports involve both skill and luck. In cricket, for example, it is understood that a batsman can get a bad decision or an unplayable ball but it’s okay because, as the cliché goes, it evens out in the long run. In poker, though, the role of luck is far greater than in any other sport. Indeed, the management of luck is practically the key skill in the game, and outcomes in the short run are massively dependent on chance. (The longer the horizon of time you set for your yourself, the more skill comes into play.) If you watch players at a poker table in action, it will be hard for you to immediately make out whether they are trying to master a deeply complex game for profit – or whether they’re addicted to gambling.
Gambling addiction is a huge problem across the world, and studies in the west estimate that up to 4% of the population could be ‘problem gamblers’. I don’t use the term ‘addiction’ in a colloquial sense, but a medical one. While the American Psychiatric Association used to classify pathological gambling as an ‘impulse-control disorder’, it changed its mind a year ago and reclassified it as an addiction. The reason for this is the realisation that, like addictions to drugs or alcohol or porn, gambling addiction has a biological basis.
When a gambling addict makes an action—presses a button on a slot machine, pulls a lever, places a bet – the process that takes place in his brain is pretty much the same as in that of a cocaine addict getting a hit. There is a spurt of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure that has been described as ‘the master molecule of addiction’. As time goes by, there is less and less dopamine released by the brain in response to the action or the hit, so we need more of it. More cocaine, more gambling, in a circle that never ends.
(I am simplifying it a bit. There is a lot more to dopamine, which has been called ‘the Kim Kardashian of molecules’, than addiction; and the biological processes behind addiction are most complex than just spurts of dopamine. Scientific American recently said that ‘pathological gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking’, and that ‘gambling and drugs change the brain in similar ways’. )
Now, here’s the thing: every time we sit down to play poker, no matter how skillful we might be, and how scientifically we approach the game, we are also experiencing those rushes of dopamine in the brain. And in our weaker moments, we are prone to behaving like addicts: playing longer than we should, playing too many hands, craving action, and so on. Sometimes we rationalise this behaviour. (‘I called because he was polarised there’ is my favourite excuse.) Sometimes we know we’re doing something wrong but just can’t help ourselves.
Ever since humankind has existed, our biggest battle has been against our own selves, with our rational self fighting to take control of our primitive self. We are a collage of often contradictory instincts and impulses, some encoded in our genes, some mandated by whatever chemical processes happen to be taking place inside of us. So here’s the most important lesson I have learnt at the poker table: to be successful at this game, you don’t just have to beat others, you have to master your own self.
If Jimi Hendrix was a poker player, he might well have come up with an album called ‘Are You Balanced?’ The higher you rise up the stakes, the more you hear about balance from people. ‘Are you balanced in this spot?’ ‘I called because I thought, no way you’re balanced here.’ And so on. What does balance in poker really mean?
Balance has all to do with game theory, so let’s first look at it in the context of another game: Rock, Paper, Scissors (RPS). You are asked to design a strategy for an RPS bot, and to reveal it to your opponent before the games begin. What is the best strategy you can design? Game theoretically, it is to randomise completely, so that in the long run you will have an equal number of Rock, Paper and Scissor in your range. This is the only strategy you could have that your opponent simply cannot beat, even when he knows it in advance. It is game-theory optimal (GTO). And it is balanced.
Let’s turn to poker. You raise with AKcc, I call from the big blind. The flop comes KQ3 with two hearts. I check. You bet. I raise. What do you do here?
If you think I would only raise stronger hands such as KQ and 33, you can correctly fold here. If you think I tend to slowplay those hands and would only raise with a draw, you should continue. However, if my range is balanced here, and includes hands that beat you as well as draws and some air, your decision is harder. You could make a mistake by calling; and you could make a mistake by folding. You need to estimate the equity you have against my made hands, the equity you have against my semi-bluffs, the frequency with which I have hands in those two categories and then figure out the best line to take. If I am perfectly balanced, you’re in trouble.
In this example, there are future streets of betting left, so let’s turn to a simpler river spot. You and I are in a hand that reaches the river, where I make a pot-sized bet. You are getting 2-1 on a call, and my game-theoretical aim is to make you indifferent to calling or folding. Therefore, one-third of my hands should be bluffs. (Note that balance does not mean an equal number of bluffs and value hands. It depends on the odds being offered to the opponent.) If this is the case, I can never lose in the long term, but win if you fold too much or call too much.
It’s remarkable that if you can play GTO poker, you don’t have to take into account your opponent’s ranges or tendencies. You simply need to get your own frequencies and bet-sizing right, and design your ranges accordingly. But this is almost impossible to do in practice, and even the best players only try to approximate it. Besides, you’d need to play GTO poker only in high-stakes online cash games. In all the local live games you are likely to encounter, you should aim to be exploitive rather than balanced.
Let’s go back to RPS.If someone tends to go 70% Paper, playing GTO is not the most profitable line to take. You should exploit this player by increasing the Scissor in your range. In the first poker example above, against a guy who never folds top pair, I will only raise there with better made hands; against someone who folds too much, I will raise with a greater proportion of bluffs and semi-bluffs than is GTO.
Note that an exploitive strategy, by not being balanced, is also exploitable. If I adjust to the 70% Paper guy with more Scissor, it becomes easy for either him or another observant player to adjust to my adjustment with more Rock. If two players keep adjusting to each other optimally, they will eventually both be perfectly balanced. But in practice, this rarely happens.
All players make mistakes; all players have leaks. It is usually more profitable for you to be exploitive (and exploitable) than balanced. But knowing what is GTO in many spots will help you avoid mistakes and spot exploitable imbalances in others. In poker, as in life, balance is a good thing.
For more on the use of game theory in poker, here are three recent books I recommend highly:
This is the second installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
‘Math is over-rated in poker,’ said a friend the other day. ‘Poker is about psychology, reads, getting inside your opponent’s heads. Math, shmath, pah.’ This is a popular view among many recreational players – but they couldn’t be more wrong. In my view, maths is the foundation of poker, and everything else feeds into it. If you do not master the numbers game, you cannot master poker.
Consider what a decision at a poker table involves. You’re in a hand against an opponent. From the information available to you, you try to put him on a range of hands, and modify that as the hand progresses. Your actions depend on two things: the equity of your hand against his range; and the likelihood of his folding or calling at any stage. Simply put, pot equity (PE) and fold equity (FE). Once you estimate those, it’s just a matter of crunching the numbers to come up with the mathemetically correct decision.
Now, your reads and psychological insights are not irrelevant. On the contrary, they’re among the tools you use to figure out your opponent’s range, and how likely he is to call or fold. In other words, they help you arrive at both your PE and FE in the hand. But having done that, it boils down to the math. Here’s an example.
Stacks are deep, you open with AJcc on the button. The big blind flats. The flop comes KJ2 with two hearts. BB checks, you bet, BB calls. You now put him on a range that includes any king he calls with preflop, any jack, middle pocket pairs like TT and 99, the open-ender with QT and any flush draw he called with pre. The turn is a brick, an offsuit 5. Both of you check. The river is another offsuit 5. He now bets 75% of pot. What do you do?
You’d expect him to check back here with any jack, TT and 99. Let’s say he value-bets every hand that beats you, most probably top pair. And he bluffs with QT and every plausible missed flush draw. Against this range, we have 33% equity. Since he bet 75% of pot, we’re getting 2.3 to 1 to call here, meaning the call is justified if we have 30% equity. We have 33%, so we call.
But let’s say that you are an astute reader of this particular player, and of the situation. He tends to be passive, this session is almost over, he is about break-even after having been down. In this spot, you estimate he’d bluff with a flush draw or QT just 50% of the time, but would value bet a K every time. The numbers change: against the same range, but with the bluffing layer weighted at 50%, you now have 21% equity. You should fold.
Do you see what happened here? Your psychological insight and player profiling, maybe even a tell of strength you spotted, helped you make the correct play. But it was correct because the numbers said so, and your read merely helped you arrive at the right numbers. At the heart of it was the math.
Another example: A player raises from early position, you flat from the button. The flop is king-high with two hearts. He bets. If you choose to raise, what hands are you raising with here? That depends on both your equity against his range (PE) as well as how often he will fold (FE). If he is a nit who will fold 90% of the time, you can raise with complete air here. If he is a calling machine who doesn’t like folding, your hand needs to be stronger. If your reads help you come up with his folding frequency, math will do the rest.
Normally one puts opponents on ranges, and determines fold equity, based on observation and memory: from their past behaviour, we deduce their present tendencies. Psychology plays a part only at the margins. The great Indian offspinner Erapalli Prasanna once said in a cricketing context: ‘Line is optional. Length is mandatory’. Let me paraphrase that in poker terms: ‘Psychology is optional. Mathematics is mandatory.’
This is the first instalment of Range Rover, a new weekly column on poker I am writing for the Economic Times.
A young man enters a bookshop. He loves books. And he’s lonely. He spots a gorgeous young lady browsing a book by an author he loves, Milan Kundera. Their eyes meet; she looks away shyly. He decides to seize the day. He walks over to her, but just as he begins speaking—‘Hi, that’s one of my favourite Kundera…’—a hunky young man appears on the other side of this lady, and she squeezes his arm as he apologizes for having made her wait. Then they both turn to our young man. ‘Yes?’ she asks.
‘Erm, I was just saying, that’s my favourite Kundera book.’
They look at him blankly. ‘Who’s Kundera?’ she says.
And at this awkward moment, dear reader, I have a question for you: Did our hero make a mistake?
The answer to that lies in mathematics. And I will try and explain it through poker. Welcome to this first instalment of Range Rover, my weekly column on poker. The column is meant not for the complete layman, but for the hobbyist who knows the basics of the game. My reflections will be about the technical and mental aspects of the game – and also, sometimes, about life itself. This first piece, with particular relevance to our Bookshop Romeo, is about ranges.
A mistake beginning players often make is of putting their opponent on a particular hand, and then seeing if they’re ahead or behind – instead of putting them on a range of hands, and calculating their equity against that range. For example, say you raise from early position with AKcc. Villain calls from the button. The flop comes Ks7h2h. You make a continuation bet, villain raises. What do you do?
In this spot, you need to figure out what range of hands villain could be doing this with. If he is a super-safe ABC nit who will only dare to raise here with hands that beat you—basically sets, AA and another AK, as no two-pair combo calls preflop—then your equity against his range is around 20%, and you must fold. If he is spewy-aggro and his range includes all flush draws and worse kings like KQ, KJ and KTs, plus some air, then you are around 60% in the hand and should continue. Now, sometimes you will call the spewy player and find that he has 22, but that doesn’t make your call a mistake: you made the right decision, but ran into the top of his range. Similarly, if you fold to the nit and he shows AK, it doesn’t mean you made a mistake there either. The result of the hand has nothing to do with the correctness of your decision.
A beginning player would have put his opponent on a particular hand, and congratulated or berated himself based on whether he won or lost. But that would be a mistake, and there is a reason poker players are told not to be results-oriented. Your goal in poker should just be to make +ev decisions against your opponent’s ranges, and not think of immediate outcomes. To get the money in as a 60% favourite will make you rich in the long term – but losing four such hands in a row, as does happen, should not lead you to question the inherent correctness of your decisions. To paraphrase Krishna from the Bhagawad Gita, do the right thing, don’t worry about the fruits of your actions.
Let’s go back to our Bookshop Romeo. He is single, and sees a girl he likes. From the range of possible personality types, he narrows her down to potentially compatible ones because she is in a bookshop and holds a Kundera book. Furthermore, considering that the momentary embarrassment of being snubbed is not much of a cost to bear, given the benefits that are possible, he is getting practically infinite odds to make his move. So he does. It ends badly, but it wasn’t a mistake. Indeed, to not approach the girl would have been an error. He lost this hand – but he played it right.
This personal essay by me appears in the winter edition of Forbes Life India.
I feel the ground sway under my feet as I get up. I gather my chips and walk unsteadily to the cashier’s cage. I’ve been playing poker for 40 hours now, and I’m up by the amount I used to earn in a month in my last job. But it’s been a swingy session, and I was down by a lot at one point till I fought back, and I was up by more than I am now till I lost a couple of hands. I’ve faced euphoria and devastation within 40 seconds of each other in the same hand, when I flopped the nuts—the best possible hand—on the flop, and my opponent, after going all-in on the turn, out-nutted me on the river. I’ve been on a high fueled by four Red Bulls and the excitement of winning, and now the ground is shaking and I wonder if I am about to faint and finally be punished for this brutal lifestyle. Then I realize, with some relief, why the earth is moving so gently under my feet: we are on a boat, after all—a floating casino in Goa, solidly anchored but still on water. I do not know what time it is, or what day, or whether I have missed my flight back to Mumbai. What I do know is that this session is over, I need sleep, and once I have rested I’ll be back for more.
I am a poker obsessive. This is a problem because it is difficult to state whether it is a problem or not. If someone is obsessed with tennis or chess or cricket, it becomes apparent soon enough whether they’re any good at it, and whether they have a future in it, because there are clear metrics to measure performance. If someone is obsessed with roulette or teen patti, it is equally clear that they are addicted to gambling, which can only be harmful in the long run. But poker exists in a twilight zone: it is both a game of skill, and a gamble. You could play it as a card game involving chance, and do it for the dopamine rushes that keeps addicts addicted; or you could study it as a science, bringing probability, game theory and psychology to bear on each carefully weighed decision. In the long run, a mathematical approach makes you money: If you keep getting your money in when the odds favour you, you will end up profitable. But in the short run, luck plays a huge role in the game. (The management of luck is the key skill in the game.) And in this short run, the wild gambler, the compulsive addict, can win huge amounts, while the skillful player can lose, and lose, and lose, despite constantly making the correct decisions, till he is emotionally imbalanced enough to actually start playing badly. Because this is a game that fosters self-delusion, that universal (and necessary) quality in human beings, it is impossible for me to say whether I am here as a gambling addict or as a serious sportsman. I know that I have both in me, and they battle every second that I am on the table.
I was drawn to poker, I suppose, for the same reasons that I was drawn to chess or scrabble: the intellectual challenge that it presented, and the competitive instinct that it fueled. I started playing the game three years ago, on the world’s biggest poker site, Pokerstars. Because of the difficulty in depositing money onto the site through Indian credit cards, which are barred by the RBI from depositing money on gambling sites, I used to play freeroll tournaments, that required no entry fee and had small guaranteed prizes. It was a good way to learn the basics of the game, and I followed it up by reading all the great instructional books in poker literature: the Sklanskys, the Harringtons, the Millers, the Brunsons, the Gordons. But this was all theoretical stuff, and I was itching to play live poker, with real people, who would give off tells when they bluffed me so I could make hero calls, like they do on television. None of my friends played poker, but early last year, I managed to get myself into The Sunday Game, a weekend gathering of poker enthusiasts in a suburban hotel in Mumbai. They’d book a room, organise a tournament, maybe two, with a Rs 3000 or 5000 buy-in, with 10% going to the rake to pay for the room, and the rest forming a prizepool for the top three or four players. Sometimes they’d play a cash game afterwards with a buy-in of Rs 1000. Looking back at the time, I realise that I was ridiculously bad: but playing with better players helped me, as did the fact that, being an obsessive with a steep learning curve, I worked hard on my game and got better really fast.
I still needed validation, though, and I got some when I went to Goa in June 2010 for the India Poker Championship, an event in which there were three tournaments held over the weekend at Casino Royale, a floating casino. Playing ABC poker, sticking to basics, I reached the final table of the main tournament, and got a modest payout for coming fifth. What was more thrilling, though, was how my cash-game sessions ended up. On the last day, I made a hero call against two all-in players on the turn, with one card to come, and won a pot worth Rs 1.5 lakhs. At the time, it seemed enormous to me, and I went home from that trip with a tidy profit.
Believing that mastery of the game was inevitable, I sought out cash games to play in Mumbai, and found one in a flat in Lokhandwala where I spent probably 100 of the next 120 nights. The apartment belonged to a player I shall refer to as Hunter, a savvy model and entrepreneur who conducted a home game every night, charging 2% of each pot as rake, and providing food and non-alcoholic drinks on the house. The first time I went there, the game had a modest Rs 5000 buy-in, with blinds of Rs 25 and 50. There was a raised platform on one side of the room, on which Hunter put a mattress, and we sat on that and by its side and played our game. Within three months, the blinds had increased to Rs 100 and 200, and the standard buy-in was Rs 20,000. Earlier, winning or losing 20 grand in a day was noteworthy: now, there could be three lakhs on the table at any given point, and you could win or lose a lakh in a day.
Naturally, Hunter had the platform demolished, and a new table and swank new chairs were purchased for us. My routine for about six months was this: wake up in the evening, pass time impatiently, and head off to Hunter’s place in time for the game to begin at 8 or 9 pm. The game would then go on till around 8 in the morning. I’d have a Red Bull while playing, and there would be chips and biscuits and fruits and other snacks. We could also order from any restaurant in the area, and ordering dal khichdi from Rhythm restuarant at 1am was, I recall, a common occurrence. At one point, Hunter decided that his players deserved healthier food. So a cook was hired for us, and though he was appallingly bad, at least we got home-cooked food in the middle of the night.
It was here that I discovered that the most important part of the game is the mental part: not in terms of calculating equity against opponent’s ranges and all that, which is of course essential, but in keeping your mental equilibrium through the inevitable swings of a poker session. I was given to steaming if someone gave me a bad beat after playing badly himself, and by allowing myself to feel angry or frustrated, I’d play worse than normal. I’d get bored and lose discipline and play more hands than I should, or passively chase draws even when the odds weren’t right for it. I’d lose more money playing badly than I won when I was playing well. The essential attribute of a poker player is that he must not be results-oriented, for good play is rewarded only in the long run, but must instead always focus on doing the right thing, making the correct play, regardless of its immediate consequence. (A la what Krishna said in the Bhagwad Gita.) It took time for me to cultivate that detachment in myself. (Having my iPod and Kindle with me helped conquer impatience.) Luckily, through that whole process, I remained a profitable player.
I also grew close to some of the other poker obsessives I played with. There is a strange dissonance at play here: on one hand, I wanted nothing more than to take the money of these people I played with, and I knew they wanted to empty my pockets as well; on the other, some of them became close friends, far more so than colleagues in an office would. Perhaps that is not quite so surprising: this was not an ordinary workplace where we met every day, but an emotionally fraught battlefield, such an unusual one that none of our non-poker playing friends could ever understand what it was truly like.
I also spent a while playing at a nearby club where some informal poker tables ran, and between these two places, met a wider cross-section of people than I would in any conventional job. Any writer would cherish meeting so many unusual characters: S, the government contractor who did not understand the game, was a true addict, and would mechanically push chips to the middle, pot after pot, every night, until his sources of funding, a probable by-product of Nehruvian socialism, dried up and he disappeared; P, the Delhi businessman who reportedly dropped around 75 lakhs over six months, and had to take a large loan from M, a player-cum-moneylender, who lent money at exorbitant rates (M was barred from Hunter’s game, though, which was relatively clean); B, the 20-year-old whose parents thought he was away nights because he worked in a call center, and who is now a full-time bookie; R, a reckless young gambler who called himself the Tom Dwan of Lokhandwala, and got into debts that he paid off by selling seats to a college where his father was a trustee; and others such as a couple of Bollywood actors and a cricketer who was as fearless on the poker table as on the field. (I say this in a good way.) They were fascinating people by themselves, but even more so in the context of this dramatic game, where emotional upheaval is routine.
The swings had a huge impact on us. On a day when I won a lot, I’d walk out with a lilt to my step, on top of the world, filled with self esteem and confidence, and women on the street would turn to look at me. When I lost, I’d be deflated and depressed, asking myself metaphysical questions not just about the point of this pursuit but of any pursuit. Eventually we got used to these fluctuations, as we needed to in order to stay sane. Our approach to money changed as well. Quite often, we’d have breakfast at the nearby Lokhandwala MacDonald’s; but equally often, a couple of us would head to the Juhu Marriott for the excellent breakfast buffet there. Earlier, in my middle-class way, I’d consider a Marriott breakfast an occasional extravagance. But now, when we were winning or losing over 30k in a day, we felt entitled to it. It cost, after all, no more than six big blinds. Or three straddles. Half a c-bet. Looking at the world through this prism made everything seem cheaper—though while at the tables, we never thought of the chips in terms of their real value, or we’d have been paralysed into inaction. (‘I can buy two iPads with the money I’m about to bet. OMG!’)
All this while, I kept going to Goa regularly. Last year, there was at least one tournament series every month; this year, one can easily spend four weekends there playing tournies continuously. I ended 2010 well, reaching seven final tables out of 14 tournaments played, including a second-place finish. But as I spent the first half of 2010 running bad in tournaments, I would put down both my good streak and my bad one to variance: these were short-term results, and the sample size was so small that it would be foolish to read too much into them. My focus remained cash games—until May this year.
By May, I’d overcome a downswing in the first part of the year—January was my only losing month—and had arrived at a healthy daily rate of profitability. But my game had stagnated, and I felt I needed to up it a notch. I decided to give up the potential earnings of the live games I played, and instead focus in a direction where immediate payouts weren’t likely: online poker.
Online poker is far tougher than live poker. The world’s best players play online, multi-tabling furiously, using complex tools that analyse their opponents’ historical betting patterns and raising frequencies. It is an evolved, highly technical battlefield, and most local players I played with had, like me, been small net losers online—despite a good streak here or there. Unlike many of them, I did not want to rationalise this away by cribbing that online poker was rigged. I wanted to conquer the beast.
Around the middle of this year, I joined a team put together by Adi Agarwal, a 26-year-old from Kolkata who has won more than US$ 3 million online in the last four years. (This is a matter of public record, by the way: there are websites that compile online results across all major sites, and everyone’s results, provided you know their username, are publicly available.) He had also finished in the top 100 of the main event of the World Series of Poker, the de facto world championship. (He declares his poker income and pays his taxes, for what it’s worth.) Adi wanted to stake us to play online and local tournaments with his money: in return, he’d get 50% of all winnings. Most importantly, he would go through our hand histories and actively coach us, taking care of leaks in our games. This was a win-win arrangement: it was risk-free in terms of investment for me, and a top player would share his insights on the game with me—almost akin to a tennis rookie being coached for free by an elite pro. And if his team played well, Adi would also stand to make more money than he could just playing on his own. (Such staking arrangements are very common, and most top players, to reduce variance, are part of such staking stables.)
For the last three months, thus, I’ve been playing at home. I’ve invested in a giant screen for my desktop, on which I can tile 20 tables at the same time. At 9pm, I start my online grind. At peak frequency, around midnight, I’m playing around 12 tables. By the time the night winds up, at around 8 in the morning, I’ve played over 30 tournaments. There is a five-minute break every hour, in which I have to pee/make coffee/get Red Bull from the fridge/make my ham-and-salami sandwich and so on. I also have the team on Skype, and we discuss poker, and how we could have played certain hands differently, and so on.
There is a method to this madness. Luck, or variance, plays a big role in poker in the short run, and the best way to counter this is to bring the long run closer by playing a lot. Online, you play many more hands per hour than you do live, and you can play multiple tables at the same time. The volume of play you put it, thus, could make a night of online poker equal to two months of live poker. If you play correctly, you are much more likely to be profitable—and the fields in online tournaments are so large that the occasional huge payout is likely for a good player. Just a month ago, I was chip leader in the biggest weekly tournament, the Sunday Million, with 25 people left. The first prize was over US$ 200,000; I ended up 18th for a fraction of that. An online grinder can make a healthy living stringing together smaller wins; but when the big one comes, it can be life-changing.
I still play live tournaments in Goa, though, and have won two in the last month. Hunter’s game in Mumbai has shut down for a host of reasons, one of them being a comical raid by the Anti-Terrorist Squad—a surreal story for another day. As many as four of the other regulars from that game have turned pro, and two of them regularly play high-stakes games in Goa, and speak of winning or losing five lakhs in a session as they used to speak of 50k swings six months earlier. The poker boom has only just started in India, and despite pending legal issues, hinging around poker’s acceptance as a game of skill, poker seems almost certain to become one of the country’s most popular sports.
And what about the way poker has consumed my life? I write a blog named India Uncut, which at its peak, when I wrote five posts a day, got 10,000 pageviews a day and had 17,000 RSS feed subscribers. Recently, I went two months without a post. My first novel, My Friend Sancho, was well received and sold well, but I just haven’t made enough progress on another one. (Among other projects, I’m planning a crime novel featuring a poker-playing detective who uses the cognitive tools he’s refined through playing the game to solve cases in the real world. A good way to bring my passions together, you think?)
When I gave up the corporate life to be a full-time writer, I had decided that I would only have one yardstick to judge my life: Do I wake up every morning looking forward to a day at work? And hell, I certainly do begin every day just waiting to being dealt in. I even played through an entire session in a dream one day, figuring out ranges and calculating equity in hand after hand after hand. And while I’ve given myself a deadline to start writing seriously again, until then, I will give myself up to this obsession. My chips are in the middle—I’m all in.
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And here’s a box that accompanied the piece:
There is an old saying that poker is the easiest game to learn and the hardest to master. Luckily, there are plenty of resources online you could use for either purpose. There are many sites where you could learn the basics of the game, but for a pithy explanation of the rules of the game, you could just start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_hold_%27em
The best site to play online is Pokerstars, at http://www.pokerstars.com. It’s the world’s biggest poker platform, is reliable and trustworthy, and while it doesn’t accept deposits from Indian credit cards, there are other deposit options that could help you get around that.