Print Story on my obsession with complex systems
By 256 (Thu Feb 12, 2009 at 05:15:39 AM EST) (all tags)
so, i'm unemployed, have been for a while. i'm a pretty good housewife. i make breakfast every morning and do the cooking most nights too. i do the grocery shopping and i do the laundry. ostensibly i do the vacuuming and whatnot as well, but i never seem to remember.

somewhere in all that i'm theoretically writing a novel.

this is the story of how the novel i was supposed to be finished by now didn't get written.

around this time last year, i started playing in a weekly poker game. small stakes texas hold em, fifty cent big blind. the players in the game were pretty good, mostly degenerate gamblers with graduate degrees, mostly about my age. smart people, but reckless and irresponsible. my kind of people.

i grew up in a card-playing home. my parents had a nickel/dime game every week from when i was very small and by the time i was in high school i was playing in it. i organized games from time to time in toronto and played in a weekly game in amsterdam as well. i confess that i was one of those people who thought i was good at the game without having ever bothered to actually study it.

this weekly game in philadelphia was my wake up call. i realized that these people were playing a different game than i was, and i wanted to learn how to play it to. I started spending my days reading poker forums and poker books, memorizing some probability charts and making sure that i could generate others from first principles on the fly. I started playing in freerolls online, using software to track my play so that i could review it later and posting hands i had trouble with to poker forums and mailing lists for help. in the weekly game i started practicing memorizing every hand as it was played and, despite having a terrible memory for most things, quickly found that i could do so with great accuracy. the other players were doing the same and i would find that--when people were talking about a hand from the previous week--i could almost always remember not only the hand, but who was in it and how they had sized their bets on each street. i started tracking all of my live play in a spreadsheet.

i became close friends with the two best players in the game and began to study the playing patterns of all the regulars. it started to become second nature to me to vary my betting patterns depending on who was in the hand, to take note of who was watching and to occasionally make an intentionally questionable play just to throw them off the scent.

i started winning.

I had also won a couple of the online freerolls and built myself a small bankroll with which to play very small stakes tournaments. I remember the overpowering thrill when i placed first in a two hundred person tournament with a $2 entry fee and won $180. even then, i was so naive to think: "that only took like three hours, if i could keep up just half that win-rate, i'd be making thirty bucks an hour playing online poker". ha. $30/hr single-tabling $2 MTTs.

this was about the time i started riding my motorcycle to Atlantic City once, sometimes twice, a week. this story doesn't end nearly as badly as it could have if i was a slightly different person. fortunately, as much as i love wagering, i have almost no interest in gambling. i understand the math of the roulette wheel and the craps table too well for them to lure me in. at the poker table however, i figured i had an edge. and for the most part i did.

the problem is that the lowest stakes in AC are $1/$2 NL (unless you want to play $2/$4 fixed limit, which for all practical purposes is a much smaller game, though an uninteresting one and one in which it is almost impossible to beat the rake). $1/$2 may not sound like very high stakes, but i've lost $400 over the course of one session and won $950 over the course of another. these are unreasonable swings in my net worth. for a while i was running very hot and felt invincible, then i had a couple of losing sessions and, though i had lost far less than i had won, they devastated my confidence. let me tell you something: there's no way to win in poker if you're not confident. part of it is that people, even at low stakes, pick up on that and realize they can run over you and the other part is that, so often in poker, the right play is the bold, high-risk play.

i was still playing online though and about this time i won my first non-micro-stakes tournament, pulling in first place in a $10 tourney with a field of almost 200 for $800. this helped bolster my confidence and put me back on the road to AC. still, i started to feel trepidation rather than excitement when i pulled onto the AC expressway. my spreadsheet told me that i was averaging $22/hour in AC over a significant sample, and so when i would go for a 5-hour session, some part of my mind was already expecting to come back $100 richer. of course, when the standard deviation on your $22 winrate is $190, it doesn't quite work that way. the mathematical part of my mind knew that i had only yet begun to taste the wrath of variance.

i'll spare you the specifics of the individual hands, though i can still remember most of them in excruciating detail. there were a few bad beats where i got my money in ahead and didn't catch my cards and there were a few times when i got my stack in with the second or third nuts and ran into the immortal monster under the bed, and there were a few hands where I just played badly. none of these hands are interesting; they're standard. this happens, i knew it. this is what variance means.

i was still reading and studying through all this and still steadily getting better. i was one of three steady winners at the weekly game, and i had started rounding from time to time with the other two at a few other games in the city. i knew that, winning or losing on that particular day, this was a game that i was good at and a game that i could become great at. i've read Theory of Poker cover to cover three times now and can recite almost all of mike caro's charts from the back of Super System, not to mention the dozens of more specialized books and articles. i was finding that my dinner table conversation with e was often about particular hands that had stuck with me from the last session and when i was laying in bed trying to go to sleep, my brain kept spinning, working out multihand scenarios with unexpected probabilities just to amuse itself.

meanwhile, online, i had built my bankroll from freerolls up to over $1500 and was starting to finally be able to play in stakes where i felt like i could win real money. unfortunately, the difficulty of beating a given stake online is radically harder than the same stake live, and there is a very well-demarcated line in online poker between the levels which are completely full of people who just loaded $100 onto the site for a lark and the levels where everyone believes they've actually got an edge. when you jump from .10/.25 to .25/.50 or from the $10 tourneys to the $25 tourneys, it's like a kick in the teeth. i ran $1500 down to $600 in less than a week, needing to nearly kill my bankroll before i could admit that i had stepped out of my league. i cashed out $400 so that at least i would have something to show for all the time i put in online.

this was around november. i had stopped going to AC so much, because the weather had gotten bad and both motorcycles were in disrepair anyway (mine was, and still is, sitting in a garage in toronto). i was still going most fridays on the train, but it's just not the same. i was also starting to think about how much time i had put into this game and how little it was giving back. according to my spreadsheets and online records i had played in ten months nearly a thousand hours of poker (the majority of that online freerolls and nickel-dime) and probably spent equally as much time reading and studying. and after it all, i was up about $2400. opportunity cost for the loss.

i was still winning in AC, and my standard deviation had evened out a little (though it never evens out enough) and i had started to realize that, with just a little more work, this was something i could do for a career if i wanted to.

i don't want to.

since christmas i've gone to atlantic city twice. the weekly philadelphia game with my friends has become more of a monthly game and one of the two guys i'm closest with has mostly stopped coming because, since losing his job, he has become deeply involved with the gambling community in ways that i can't really talk about in a public forum. with the exception of one two-day lapse, i've stopped playing online and i've mostly stopped reading poker articles and studying my game. i play well enough now to win at any live stakes i can afford to play, and if i'm only playing once every couple of weeks, that's good enough.

and i've committed almost as many words to page since the new year than i did in the entire ten months previous.

i was going to talk about other things in my life, but this is getting long and i have a magazine article i'm supposed to be writing, so i guess i'll just have to let this entry stand as a memorial to the year i lost to poker.

it was one of the happiest years of my life, but i'm not going to repeat it.

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on my obsession with complex systems | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
While it's a "game of skill" by debacle (2.00 / 0) #1 Thu Feb 12, 2009 at 06:42:08 AM EST
Probability holds quite a bit of sway when you are playing with inexperienced players, because you have no idea how they're going to react (they have no idea how they're going to react). You can guess and assume, but they might be playing something stupid just because the hand doesn't mean much to them.

Playing any game for recreation and then moving that same game over into the realm of true competition is, to say the least, shitty. Especially when you move back into the realm of recreation, because the people you used to play with aren't nearly as skilled as you are. It isn't fun for you any longer, and it isn't fun for them. It took me a long time to atrophy my skills to a point where I could "rediscover" the game and enjoy playing it casually again. Even still, I sometimes have an urge to take things too seriously. Sometimes it's more fun to lose and have a laugh than it is to win and have a few bucks.


variance is higher against bad people or RNGs by 256 (2.00 / 0) #2 Thu Feb 12, 2009 at 07:21:19 AM EST
but the edge is much higher.

a great player against good players makes a lot of small 51/49 gambles. a good player against bad players makes a few large 60/40 gambles. they both win in the end, but the swings are bigger in the latter example.

it's a huge myth that it's harder to beat bad players. it's just that they put bad beats on you more often because they put their money in bad more often.

but regardless of anything else, it's more fun to play when people, including yourself, aren't taking the game seriously. i have the most fun playing the game over beer with people at my skill level playing for less than a quarter of our usual stakes.

I don't think anyone's ever really died from smoking. --ni
[ Parent ]
Damn by dark nowhere (2.00 / 0) #3 Thu Feb 12, 2009 at 09:03:26 AM EST
I'd have a hard time walking away. I'm not the best with the cards but people become very systematic--no matter how irrational--with their hands. Half an hour into playing I find the game changes into a conversation (in bets) about the kinds of hands everyone has. That has always fascinated me and I'd be very reluctant to let it go (which is probably the right choice, mind) if I had the chance and confidence to do it for a living.

See you, space cowboy.

I believe that by Herring (4.00 / 1) #4 Thu Feb 12, 2009 at 02:16:42 PM EST
you've got to know when to hold
Know when to fold
Know when to walk away
Know when to ... I'll get my coat

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

I was addicted to facebook poker by MillMan (2.00 / 0) #5 Thu Feb 12, 2009 at 06:31:10 PM EST
for a few months. Once I got some discipline I went from being near zero on a daily basis to 10 million dollars/chips/whatever in a few weeks.

Even online, where the intimidation / manipulation angle is greatly reduced, it's really fun. After a few months, though, I started to feel "dirty" the same way I do when I blow a whole evening playing video games. It's not a good way to live, regardless of how you like to live life.

"Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no libertarians in financial crises." -Krugman

on my obsession with complex systems | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback