About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. These days, he makes his living playing poker as he works on his second novel.



My Friend Sancho

My first book, My Friend Sancho, was published in May 2009, and went on to become the biggest selling debut novel released that year in India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and had earlier been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho


Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


My posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.




Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner




The India Uncut Blog

17 September, 2014

The Interpreter

This is the 24th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

If there is one quality that distinguishes humans from other species, it is our arrogance. We think we are masters of the universe – but really, we are not even masters of our own selves.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the cognitive neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry carried out a series of studies on split-brain patients that are now legendary in the field. One of the treatments for severe epilepsy is to cut the corpus callosum, the collection of neural fibres that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This results in what is known as a split brain, when the two halves of the brain cannot communicate with each other. (In popular psychology, the left brain is considered to control rational thought while the right brain is more intuitive and creative. This is a simplification, but a useful one.) Gazzaniga and Sperry’s experiments aimed to find out what consequence this had on behaviour, and what it revealed about the brain.

The good doctors separated the visual fields of the two hemispheres, and flashed an instruction to the right hemisphere. In one example: “Walk”. The subject got up and started walking. When asked why he suddenly got up and started walking, he replied, “To get a Coke,” – and here’s the remarkable thing: he actually believed that was the reason. Time after time, across instructions, across split-brain subjects, the docs found that the right hemisphere responded to one thing and the left hemisphere, having no way of knowing what the right brain was responding to, would rationalise the actions the person took.

Steven Pinker, in his influential book The Blank Slate, referred to these experiments and called the conscious mind “a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.” Gazzaniga himself referred to the left brain as merely “the interpreter.” VS Ramachandran wrote in Phantoms in the Brain, “[t]he left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn’t fit the model, it relies on Freudian defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate – anything to preserve the status quo.”

Consider this possibility: we do many things, some would even argue all things, driven by forces we can’t control. We are slaves of our wiring, our brain chemistry, of impulses and drives we may not even be aware of. Our left brain, our ‘spin doctor’, our ‘interpreter’, neatly rationalises all this and comes up with reasons for everything we do. Why are we walking? Because we want a Coke. There’s a reason for everything we do; but it’s not necessarily the real reason, even if we believe it to be so.

This brings up the obvious question of the existence of free will, and Gazzaniga actually wrote a fascinating book about this, Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. (Contrary to what you might expect, he actually makes a case for free will.) But that is a complex philosophical subject that is beyond the ambit of this column, which, after all, is about poker.

All the time, on the poker table, I see players articulate reasons for actions that sound just like the bullshitting of the left hemisphere. I see addicts, chasing one more dopamine rush, playing every hand, but rationalising any particular call. (“I was in position.” “I thought I’ll outplay him postflop.” “What if I hit?”) I see them making terrible calls because they’ve gotten attached to their hands and can’t let go, and give silly reasons after the fact. (“He was polarised there.” “He often bluffs, I have history with him.”) I see them unable to get up from sessions when they should book their hefty profits, and ditto when they should just book their losses. (“The table was so juicy, I thought I will clean it up/recover.”) I see players not in control of themselves, and with reasons for everything.

So when you play poker, or do anything at all in your life for that matter, watch out for the interpreter at work. Always ask yourself hard questions, and remember, the easy answers are usually wrong.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 11:03 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Science and Technology | Sport

10 September, 2014

Magnus Carlsen’s Weakness

This is the 23rd installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Last week was an extraordinary one in the world of chess. The strongest tournament of all time, the Sinquefield Cup, the first ever with an average rating of 2800, came to an end. Six of the top ten players in the world, including the top 3, played each other in a double round robin. The young Italian-American Fabiano Caruana destroyed the field with an incredible score of 8.5 out of 10 rounds, including wins in his first seven games, which is a ridiculous streak in a tournament of this strength.  He finished three whole points ahead of second-placed Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion.

Carlsen, still World No. 1 and the highest ranked player of all time, didn’t take it well. Through the tournament, whenever he was asked about Caruana’s streak, he made the requisite graceful noises but added caveats. For example: “What he’s done here is absolutely incredible. But we shouldn’t completely forget what’s happened the last four years.” When asked before their round 8 encounter if he now felt he was the underdog – Caruana was 7 out of 7 at that pointCarlsen said he didn’t see himself as an underdog, “because I’m a better player.” Caruana’s streak came to an end in that game, but Carlsen just about managed to hold on to a draw.

To add to this, Carlsen played well below his usual clinical best, which augurs well for Viswanathan Anand, who plays him in a World Championship rematch in November. Carlsen is an impeccable technician, in terms of ability probably the greatest chess player who has ever lived, and certainly the favourite in the rematch. But Anand’s greatest opportunity lies not in Carlsen faltering on the board, but in disintegrating inside his own head. I think we saw Carlsen’s weak spot during the Sinquefield Cup. To use poker terminology, he has tilt issues.

In his landmark book, The Mental Game of Poker, sports psychologist Jared Tendler defines ‘tilt’ as “anger + bad play.” In short, you lose your mental equilibrium and start playing below your best, often making big mistakes. Tilt is caused by many different factors, and Tendler defines seven types of tilt. The one that I believe Carlsen suffers from is called ‘Entitlement Tilt.’

Entitlement tilt comes about when you believe that you should be winning more than you are, and you start tilting because you are being denied your due. In Tendler’s words, “Winning is a possession and you tilt when someone undeserving takes it from you.” So you could be at a game where you are clearly the best player, but the run of the cards leaves you five buyins down while the two biggest donkeys at the table are up 10 buyins each, and even though you know, rationally, that in the long run you will all get what you deserve, you are still upset about the situation. So you tilt, start playing badly, and suddenly you are the fish at the table.

My sense, from watching Carlsen over the last week, is that he’s been hit by entitlement tilt. It was hard for him to watch Caruana dominate the field in a manner that Carlsen believes only he should, and this affected both his emotional equilibrium and his play. This is where Anand’s opportunity lies in November. If he can hit Carlsen early and take the lead, Carlsen might go on entitlement tilt. Rather than stay calm and just play every game optimally, he might let his emotions affect his play. Poker players, when on tilt, move from their A-game to their C-game. Anand cannot match Carlsen’s A-game – but he can crush his C-game.

So come November, you might just see Anand, unlike in the first match, eschew the kind of quiet positional lines that Carlsen thrives in and go for high-risk-high-reward tactical lines to get Carlsen out of his comfort zone. If he manages to strike the opening blow, the gap in ratings and ability will not matter. In the normal course of things, Anand is unlikely to beat Carlsen. But he can help Carlsen beat himself.


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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 8:50 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

05 September, 2014

The Stranger at the Next Table

This is the 8th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I have a coffeeshop question for you. You are sitting in a café with a friend, talking about this and that, and a stranger comes and sits at the next table. It could be anyone: a gorgeous girl, a Bollywood celebrity, a gym-toned hunk. There is a moment’s pause, while you and your friend take in the presence of this new person, and then you continue talking. But you are aware that this stranger, who is alone, can hear every word you say. You and your friend are not talking about anything private; maybe you are talking about a new film you saw, or a book you read, or a friend’s divorce. Will the presence of the stranger at the next table affect the content and tone of your conversation?

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There is a YouTube clip floating around on the interwebs that has been linked to a lot recently. It features Robin Williams and Stephen Fry chatting with Michael Parkinson. In it, Fry, who had just written a book on bears, comments on how animals are different from humans. “‘When you wake up in the morning, a bear does not say, ‘Oh god, I was a very bad bear yesterday. I’m guilty.’ They don’t feel guilty that they possess organs of sexual generation. They don’t feel they should wear clothes. They just spend 100% of every minute of every hour of every day being a bear. And a treefrog spends all its time being a treefrog. We spend a lot of time trying to be somebody else. You know, trying to be like the person next door, the person on television, the person in the movies… we’re trying to be somebody else. Animals, supremely, are themselves.”

(If I may add to this, it could be said that animals are Buddhist. They are always living in the moment. They are mindful. I know people who go to Vipassana courses to attain just this quality. I did once, many years ago, and for the last eight days of the 10-day course, I basically thought about sex. But the first meal I had after the course, at an Italian restaurant, was the best I’ve had in my life. The restaurant had nothing to do with it. My ten days of focusing on the senses were responsible. My taste buds took in every damn nuance of the dish I ate. I was in the moment – though I suppose in a different way from a bear having a meal, which probably just goes through the routine motions programmed into it. Also, bears are vegetarian, which puts a limit on prandial pleasure. And this is precisely the kind of pointless parenthetical digression that humans, and not bears or treefrogs, indulge in too much.)

Fry’s point, I suppose, was that what sets humans apart from other creatures is that we are social animals in such a way that we allow other people to define our self-image. We care too much about what they think of us. This is absurd.

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The stranger at the next table. Would you speak differently, or say different things, because someone you had never met before and would never meet again was listening? Does the approval or admiration of strangers matter to you?

I reached middle age recently – it is a mental state more than an age, I know, but I got there anyway – and got down to thinking about all the things I didn’t like about myself. At 20, I had been an obnoxious, insufferable, arrogant fool, but I wouldn’t dislike that guy so much if I hadn’t changed in many ways, so that’s okay. But there is one quality I still have and don’t like and would love to discard : the anxiety about how other people perceive me. This damn anxiety is common to us all; it’s probably the most prominent part of the human condition. We dress up before going to social gatherings, comb our hair, put make up or shave or suchlike, preen preen preen – and then spend all our time at these gatherings behaving like the person we’d like others to believe us to be. Everything we say or do in public is, at some level, for the consumption of others. When we are truly ourselves, whatever that is, if such a thing is even possible, it is because we are fatigued from the pretence, and let our guard down.

So my middle-age resolution, which I have the rest of my life to break repeatedly, is that I want to be comfortable in my own skin. I don’t want to care about what others think of me. And if I am in a café chatting with a friend, I don’t want that conversation to be affected by a stranger at the next table. Even if my friend is an imaginary friend.

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The Stephen Fry video. The reason people have been linking to it is that Robin Williams killed himself recently, and this is one of the YouTube clips where he is at his funniest. I also found it incredibly sad. In the first part of this interview, Williams speaks alone with Parkinson, and brings the house down. In the second part, Fry joins Williams, and you’d expect this half to be mainly about Fry and the book he’s promoting. But Williams keeps interrupting him, wisecracking constantly, not letting Fry complete many of his thoughts. It’s almost like at some level he is saying, “Look at me. I’m here too. I’m so funny. Don’t you love me?” Fry is graceful about this, and even jokes about Williams’s ‘logorrhea’, and Williams has the wit to laugh at himself. You sense his self-awareness here, and also his sadness. (This interview was in 2002.) I think Williams knew, as most comedians must, that humour is an anesthetic. That’s all it is. And there must be times when it isn’t enough.

Posted at 2:58 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal

03 September, 2014

Keep Calm and Carry On

This is the 22nd installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Writers like watching other people – part of our job description is to understand human nature – and there are few better places to do that than at a poker table. We have captive subjects, sitting in one place for many hours at a time, subject to massive emotional swings, and mostly with their guard down except, once in a while, when they are in a big hand and try to be stoic and impenetrable. Watching a poker game is like watching a reality show, except that the participants don’t display the occasional self-consciousness that a camera might provoke.

One of the things that most fascinates me in long sessions is how people behave differently depending on their stack sizes. If they’re winning and stacked up, they tend to be talkative and cocky and in a generally merry mood. When they’re losing, they can be upset, irritable, silent, sometimes even angry. Although short-term swings in poker are largely determined by luck, winners can be arrogant and advise others on how to play hands, as if their immediate good fortune is related to their skills, and losers can be sullen, diffident and negative. Comically, all this can be inverted within seconds. You could have a 4000bb pot at the end of which the guy who was winning is suddenly stuck for the day, and the erstwhile loser has recovered and made a profit. And snap, their demeanour changes as well, and the arrogant prick from a few minutes ago is now sitting with his shoulders slumped and his lips pouted, and you almost want to ruffle his hair and give him a bone.

This is how it is in the real world as well, for the poker table is a microcosm of life. The psychologist Paul Piff from UC Berkeley recently gave a TEDx talk about a number of social experiments he and his colleagues carried out. In one, they got 100 participants in their lab to play a rigged game of monopoly. Players were randomly assigned the roles of ‘rich player’ and ‘poor player’, and the rich player got “two times as much money,” “twice the salary” when they passed Go, and “got to roll two dice instead of one.” As you’d expect, the rich players started crushing the poor ones, purely due to the luck of the draw at the start. And their behaviour changed.

In Piff’s words, “One person clearly has a lot more money than the other person, and yet, as the game unfolded, we saw very notable differences and dramatic differences begin to emerge between the two players. The rich player started to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with their piece as he went around. We were more likely to see signs of dominance and nonverbal signs, displays of power and celebration among the rich players. […] One of the really interesting and dramatic patterns that we observed begin to emerge was that the rich players actually started to become ruder toward the other person, less and less sensitive to the plight of those poor, poor players, and more and more demonstrative of their material success.”

At the end of the game, when interviewed, these rich players “talked about what they’d done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game, and they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation, including that flip of a coin that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place.”

Déjà vu, some? This is exactly how people behave in the real world, allowing privilege to give them a sense of superiority and entitlement. The consummate poker professional is immune to this, and does not allow himself to be affected by temporary swings, whether they last a few hours or a few sessions. He is always in the moment, trying to simply do the right thing. This is how he gets the most out of poker. And this is how we can get the most out of life. Don’t let success get to your head or failure get you down. Keep calm and carry on.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 8:01 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

27 August, 2014

The Five Commandments of Pot Limit Omaha

This is the 21st installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Four years ago, when I started playing poker seriously, the games in India were incredibly soft. If I knew then what I know now, I would have made a fortune. Most players had either discovered poker on Zynga, or transitioned from teen patti. They either gambled it up, or played ABC poker. If you knew just the fundamentals, you could beat the game. I’m talking about No Limit Hold ‘Em (NLHE), of course.  That game has moved on a bit since then—but the new NLHE in India is PLO, or Pot Limit Omaha. Everyone’s just learning this variant of poker, the standard of play is low, and you can crush the tables by getting the basics right.

Last week, I spoke about the first key insight I learnt about PLO: that you need to be selective about the hands you play, keeping in mind their post-flop playability. This week, I bring you five essential tips that should help you beat the easy PLO games spread in India, where most pots are multiway and many players play 70% to 100% of hands. (Yum yum.) Here are the Five Commandments of Pot Limit Omaha.

One: Draw to the nuts. The biggest pots in PLO are nut full house vs smaller fullhouse. You have A987ds, the board comes K997A, and you stack off to KKxx. Similarly, set-over-set, flush-over-flush and nut straight vs sucker straight are also common situations where you can win and lose big pots. Therefore, it is foolish to play small pairs for their own sake, and smaller rundowns also make sucker straights too often. And when you draw, be aware of how many of your outs are to the nuts. You don’t want to chase a draw, hit the draw, and get stacked. So understand hand structures: T986, with a gap at the bottom, will have far more nut wraps than T876, with the gap at the top. And JT98 will hit six times as many wraps as JT92, with a dangler. Do some homework, study these structures and play accordingly. (I recommend Jeff Hwang’s books and Vanessa Selbst’s videos on Deuces Cracked.)

Two: Respect Position. People play way more straightforward in PLO than in NLHE, and lead out for protection much more, so the information you get in position is more reliable. Even when you bet after being checked to and get check-raised, you are far less likely to get check-raised in PLO with air. This is a post-flop game, and position is paramount. Respect it, and be super-tight out of position (OOP). An illustration: if you have 76xx rainbow and hit the nuts on a two-tone flop of 985, you are in deep trouble OOP. Opponents who continue will have wraps to higher straights, flush draws and sets. Most turn and river cards are bad for you, with offsuit A to 4 being the only bricks, and you need runner-runner brick. In position, you could pot control, and value-bet thin on the river even when the nuts change. Out of position, you’re all set up to make a mistake on a future street.

Three: Respect suitedness. PLO is all about redraws, and even backdoor flush draws add important equity to your hand. For example, let’s say on a board of QJTr, you have AK98ds with two backdoor flush draws. Your opponent also holds AK98, but he’s offsuit. You will win the pot 9% of the time, and the rest of the time it will be chopped. That’s a huge edge in the long run. Every backdoor flush adds around 4% equity to your hand, and in a game where one often sees set vs wrap-and-flush-draw all in on the flop, suitedness matters. On the same note, avoid offsuit hands, and don’t stack off with wraps on two-tone boards without a flush draw.

Four: Be aggressive. There are two ways to win in poker: by reaching showdown and letting your equity manifest itself; and by making the other guy fold and avoiding showdown. The key to winning big in PLO is being aggressive. Every time you jam a draw and make two pair or bottom set fold, you make money. Add fold equity to your pot equity, and your profits will shoot up, as long as you don’t overestimate either. Don’t go buckwild and raise-reraise every hand – you need significant pot equity to begin with, in PLO, and the first commandment about nut draws applies.

Five: Manage your bankroll. PLO is a high-variance game, and downswings, which are statistically inevitable, can be much more brutal than in NLHE. You’re playing a long-term game of percentages, so don’t enter a game you’re not adequately rolled for. There’s no point being the best player at a game where a downswing can wipe you out, leaving you without the funds to re-enter the game. You’ll just be banging your head on the sidelines, moaning about bad beats as donkeys gamble it up with each other.

These fundamental principles apply to easy games filled with beginners, which is what you’ll get in India right now. Keep doing your homework, and you’ll find yourself falling in love with this elegant, complex game. As a Chinese friend once told me, “Two cards good. Four cards better.”

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 10:08 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

20 August, 2014

The Four-Card Game

This is the 20th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

A marriage with two people can be complicated enough. Imagine then a marriage involving four, all of them bisexual. Instead of one couple, you don’t have two couples, but six, for each of them makes a pair with each of the others. The possibilities for drama are endless. It is a big difference, not a small one. It is the difference between Texas Hold ‘Em and Pot Limit Omaha (PLO).

In PLO, you get four cards dealt to you, not two. So basically, you get dealt the equivalent of six Texas hands, not two, and the possibilities grow exponentially. It’s an action game, and for that reason, is slowly picking up in India. And most newcomers to the game play it badly, because they play it like Texas when it it is hugely different, another game entirely, like baseball and cricket. Imagine if every ball Virat Kohli played was a full toss.

So if you happen to get into a home game where people are playing PLO, because it’s so much fun and ‘chaar patte milte hai, haha,’ what should you do to make money in that game? Well, given the state of Omaha games in India, there is exactly one thing you need to do to immediately give yourself a huge advantage. I will reveal that at the end of this column: first, here’s something fundamental about Omaha you need to understand.

The first thing newcomers learn about Omaha is that there isn’t much difference in preflop equity between the best and worst Omaha hands. (AA is an 88% favourite over KQo in Texas, but AA98ds is only 60% against 6543ds.) Inspired by this, they decide that any four cards can make a good hand on the flop, and they play nearly every hand. But this is the wrong way to think about the game. PLO is a postflop game, and the most important factor thing about any hand you have is not it’s preflop all-in equity, but its postflop playability.

Much more so than in Texas, every hand you play can call for the commitment of your entire stack. And when you choose a hand to play preflop, you want to pick one with which you are comfortable playing for stacks. You need to consider which hands connect with flops well enough that when you have a hand, you don’t mind putting in 300bb with it. Specifically, therefore, you want hands that can a) make the nuts and b) have redraws to the nuts.

Common ways in which people lose big pots is by hitting a lower set, straight or flush than their opponents. For this reason, hands like 77xx and 6543ds are basically garbage. Hands that win you big pots or lose you small ones in Texas – small pairs and medium suited connectors – do the exact opposite in PLO. Plus, subtle structural differences make a huge difference to hands: JT98ds is better than 9876ds, which will make sucker straights and wraps more often, and JT97ds is better than J987ds, because it will flop more nutted straights and wraps. Also, AAxx and KKxx hands are over-rated, as are offsuit hands like AKQJr. Getting a handle on the postflop playability of different types of hands is key, because they affect equities and profits and your bankroll.

I’ll write more about the structure of hands in next week’s column, where I’ll also give you a few specific tips on how to beat the kind of soft games you are likely to encounter. Until then, here’s the one thing you can do to make yourself an immediate favourite in your games: play tight preflop. Most beginners play too many hands, and by playing tight, choosing hands with good structures, you ensure that you have a stronger range in every postflop situation, more nutted and with more redraws. If your cards lie in happy matrimony with each other, all will be well.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 12:50 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

13 August, 2014

The Game Outside the Game

This is the 19th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I am in Macau as I write this column, indulging myself with a few days of recreational tournament poker. This is a welcome change from the live cash games in Mumbai, for a couple of reasons. One, I enjoy playing tournaments, which are a very different format to cash games, and a good way to recharge oneself. Two, I like the fact that I can just sit down at a tournament table and play poker, without having to worry about the game outside the game.

What is the game outside the game? Well, you know how poker works: you get cards, figure out ranges and probabilities and equities and all that other technical stuff, and use your chips to accumulate chips from others. You also set up what I call the game within the game, the metagame: you manipulate table image, set up different dynamics with different players, and try and win the levelling wars that ensue. All this is quite thrilling.

But there is a game beyond this that sometimes makes me uncomfortable. It is not talked about much in training videos and instructional books, and applies mainly to live cash games. It involves not the technical skills I’ve been writing about in earlier editions of this column, but the kind of soft skills a politician might require or a psychopath might have. You could, euphemistically, also refer to it as fish management.

In poker terminology, good players are ‘sharks’, who gobble up ‘fish’, the disparaging term used for worse players. Being a game of self-deception as much as deception, all the fish naturally think they are sharks. And everything is relative: every shark is a fish somewhere or the other. Every shark wants to play as much as possible with fish, and the game outside the game has two central aims: Making sure that a) Fish remain fish and b) Fish remain available to you.

To this effect, there are a number of essential fish-management rules. Some of them are sensible and seem like good etiquette – for example, ‘Never berate a fish for bad play.’ But there is nothing nice about the intent behind it: to make sure the fish keeps playing badly and gives you his money later. This intent is made explicit by other rules such as ‘Never give a fish your honest opinion about a hand.’

You’re supposed to validate every bad decision a fish makes. If he donks off 400bb with top-pair-no-kicker on a wet board, you’re supposed to sympathise, say ‘What a cooler’, and pretend he just got unlucky. If he asks your opinion about a hand, you’re supposed to always lie and confirm his faulty instincts rather than share your thoughts on the correct way to play it. When he plays badly and has a losing session, you comment on his bad luck; when he wins you comment on his excellent play. Basically, you fatten him up, and marinate the poor sod (or cod, as it were).

The other side of fish management is ensuring that they want to play with you, and you have access to their games. The cash game ecosystem in India, outside Goa and Sikkim, consists entirely of underground home games, and you want to get invited to the juicy games of the recreational players. You do this by pretending to be friends with them, showing a greater interest in their lives than you otherwise feel, even socialising with them after hours: basically, by faking it and being a hypocrite.

I find it hard to play this game outside the game. (You could say I’m a fish at it.) I value straightforwardness, and find it hard to lie to someone who asks for advice, or my opinion on a hand. And I cannot feign friendship with people I otherwise have no warm feelings towards. I love the deception that is an inherent part of every sport, but not the deceit at the heart of the game outside the game. In tournaments, thankfully, it is not required. You simply sit at the table and play poker. And that’s a relief.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 8:28 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

06 August, 2014

The Dark Game

This is the 18th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

A few months ago, a friend of mine, J, wondered aloud how he would tell his prospective in-laws what he did for a living. An MBA by training, J was now a professional poker player. ‘Tell them you’re a game theorist,’ I said, ‘and are now engaged in the financially optimal application of your skills.’ My suggestion was glib and facetious: The skill involved in winning at poker is just half the story. The other half is disturbing and unpalatable.

J and I frequently play a game in New Bombay where we’re the only two long-term winners. The last time we played there, this is how the session ended: an affluent builder, many whiskeys down and possibly coked up as well, was raising and reraising every hand without looking at his cards. Stacks were 2000bb deep, the table was five-handed, and the rest of us were just waiting for hands with which to take the rest of his money. There wasn’t much mathematical calculation to be done, no equities to be worked out, no ranges to construct. Just wait to get a hand against the drunk guy. He did eventually stack himself, and J and I left big winners for the session.

I didn’t feel elated after my score, though. ‘We pride ourselves on studying the game, cracking the math, all that other shit,’ I said to J as we drove away, ‘but in the end this is what it comes down to. Sitting in a dark room waiting for a drunk builder to give his money away. Where is the nobility in this?’ J replied, ‘Yeah, we’re like drug dealers exploiting people’s addictions.’

I can give you all the counter-arguments to that, considering that I use them to rationalise what I do all the time. We play poker as an intellectual challenge; they are grown adults acting of their own free will; if we didn’t take their money someone else would. All this is the truth, but it’s not the whole truth. Poker is a unique game in the sense that it inhabits a twilight zone between sport and gambling. When J enters a hand against a drunk builder, they’re actually in parallel universes playing two different games. J approaches the game like a science and a competitive sport; the builder is basically gambling, like it’s teen patti or roulette, and he’s doing it because he is addicted to it. He’s a slave to dopamine. (This duality is within us as well, and J and the builder could easily switch universes once in a while.)

I have seen this addiction destroy lives around me. Businessmen have been ruined and gotten into heavy debt; marriages have broken down; previously respectable bankers have begged hosts of games, ‘Please give me one more buyin, just one more, I’ll pay you next week, promise.’ Sounds just like ‘one more hit’ or ‘one last peg’, doesn’t it?

The effects of rake make poker a negative-sum game. As the poker player Dan Colman put it in a post a month ago, ‘The losers lose way more money at this game than winners are winning. A lot of this is money they can’t afford to lose.’ Colman wrote this after winning US$15.3 million in a million-dollar tournament at the World Series of Poker this year. He refused to give interviews after his win, saying he didn’t want to promote poker. ‘I capitalize off this game that targets people’s weaknesses,’ he wrote. ‘I do enjoy it, I love the strategy part of it, but I do see it as a very dark game.’

The vast majority of players are long-term losers, but they are not the only victims of this addiction. Poker has a corrosive impact on the lives of even the winners. You achieve excellence at the game by playing a lot; and then need to put in volume for your edge to manifest itself in profits. As a result, your life can get consumed by the game, with everything else in it a backdrop for your obsession with poker. It isn’t healthy, and in at least one sense, the consummate professional and the drunk builder are in the same boat.

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Also Read:

Colman’s post after his WSOP win.
Daniel Negreanu’s response to Colman.
‘Helping People Through Poker’ by Igor Kurganov and Adriano Mannino.
‘A solution to Dan Colman’s dilemma’ by Phil Gruissem.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 11:10 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

01 August, 2014

Luck is All Around

This is the seventh installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

You are lucky to be reading this. When your father ejaculated into your mother, somewhere between 300 to 500 million spermatozoa were released. One of them held the blueprint for you. That one sperm cell made it through the acidic furnace of the vagina, the graveyard for most sperms, and then outlasted the survivors to somehow become a person. Taking into account the fact that this was almost certainly not the sole sexual encounter between your parents at the time, your chances of coming into existence were probably a few billion to one. Given that your parents were born of similar odds, and somehow managed to meet and hook up and produce you, it is even more of a miracle that you exist. Indeed, consider that our specific species should itself evolve and survive through the ages, on this one out of trillions of planets (yes, trillions), and you get a true idea of how remarkable your existence is. Don’t be under the illusion, though, that this makes you special: everything around you is there despite similar odds against it. However unlikely it is for a specific something to exist, it is inevitable that some things will, indeed, be there. Congratulations.

While everything else pales into insignificance beyond the spectacular fact of our existence, we’re still not satisfied. We spend our days striving for this or that trivial little thing, and stressing out over small matters like the maid coming late or the scratch on the car or the tax returns or the in-laws or getting laid. (We are programmed to worry specifically about that last one, but we are again uniquely fortunate, among species, to be able to ignore our programming. Be a rebel, don’t fuck today.) Honestly, just the fact that we are here should keep us in a constant state of elation and wonder. But we get tripped up by vanity. We believe that we are special (as a species and as individuals), and that we possess the intelligence to make sense of the world, and to rule it. This vanity, in the cosmic scale of things, is either comic or tragic, depending on how seriously you take yourself. And me, I find it hard to take myself too seriously when I’m sitting in a dark room in New Bombay playing cards with a drunk builder who’s snorting cocaine as he asks me, “Kya laga liya, sirjee?

Four years ago I became a serious poker player. I did it to make money, but ended up learning how little I knew about life. The most important thing I learnt from poker was about the role of luck in the world. Poker is essentially a game of skill, but only in the long run (which can be longer than you imagine). In the short run, luck dominates. Every action has associated probabilities, and you try to manouver your way through a poker game in such a way that the probabilities are on your side. Keep getting your money in as a 51% favourite, and in the long run, all the money is yours. In the short run, you could get hammered again and again and again. For that reason, poker players are constantly told not to be ‘results-oriented’. As Lord Krishna recommended in the Bhagawad Gita, just keep doing the right thing, and all will be well. Eventually.

While I am an atheist, the Lord was on to something. In life, too, luck plays a far bigger role than we realise. And as in poker, the management of that luck is the key skill we need to learn. Let me turn to sports to illustrate what I mean. In the last installment of Lighthouse, I had written about how luck plays a huge role in football, which is also a game of probabilities. For example, Lionel Messi scores from a direct free kick 1 in 12.5 times. This is the bare number, over a sufficiently significant sample size of free kicks. And yet, we cheer madly when he curls one in, and groan and go ‘WTF is he doing’ when he flips one way over – even though, in the larger scheme of things, they’re the same shot. While fans and even most reporters don’t get this, managers do, working furiously to maximise the probabilities in their favour. (Every action on a football field has a probability associated with it.) But fans go by results, and while those may even out in a league over a season, they never do in knockout tournaments, much to the bemusement and frustration of the men in charge. Maradona has won a World Cup, Messi hasn’t, what does that say to me? Nothing at all. It’s luck.

I was a cricket journalist for a few years, and in retrospect it amazes me how seriously we took results. Every action on a field has a number associated with it. A full delivery outside off in the 40th over has X% chance of reverse-swinging into the batsman, Y% chance of being cover-driven if it doesn’t, and Z% chance of beating the field when that happens. Through a day, as the overs go by, thousands of events of different probabilities intersect as we arrive at a result that is determined partly by skill and partly by luck. And yet, we cheer the slog that goes for six and boo the batsman holing out in the deep with a majestic lofted off-drive. Chance can determine careers: MS Dhoni blundered by leaving the last over of the first T20 World Cup final to Joginder Sharma, but it was hailed as a masterstroke when it happened to work. After Sharma conceded a wide and a six, what if Misbah-ul-Haq hadn’t played that one false stroke? Would Dhoni be Dhoni?

Life, like sport, consists of millions of intersecting events with varying probabilities, and Luck is a lead character in the drama of every person’s life. The lesson here is to not sweat what we cannot control, to take nothing in our lives for granted, and to make each moment count. And also, to be humble, because humility is the only appropriate response to the awesome complexity of this world.

Meanwhile, in that dark New Bombay room, my builder friend asks me again, “Kya hai bhai? Gutty laga li kya?” I stare at the table and show no emotion. He calls. I show him my cards, reflecting on my good fortune, and on billions and billions of spermatozoa.

Posted at 2:16 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Poker | Sport

30 July, 2014

Miller’s Pyramid

This is the 17th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

“So what is the worst thing you do when you go on tilt?” I asked a couple of my fellow pros the other day. It turned out that all of us had the same answer to that question: we call too much. We become fish when we play at our worst, unable to fold preflop or postflop, falling for hands like lovesick teenagers. And when we’re on our A-game, this is exactly the flaw we exploit in others.

And yet, and yet. I recently read the latest book by one of my favourite poker writers, Ed Miller, Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players on Top. Early on in the book, Miller states that most poker players fold too much. He writes: “In today’s game, the vast majority of regular no-limit players have folding frequencies on the turn and river that are too high.” The other big leak that regulars have, he says, is that they don’t bet enough. In other words, they give up on hands too often.

Let me illustrate this. Someone raises from middle position and you call on the button, and it’s a heads-up pot. On the flop villain bets half the pot. How often are you folding here? Note that I haven’t specified either villain’s range or your range, or the cards that came on the flop. What matters is the bet size. By betting half-pot, villain has given himself 2-1 on his bet. In other words, he needs to win the pot right away better than 1 in 3 times to show an immediate profit. If you don’t continue in the hand at least 66% of the time, therefore, you are basically giving money away.

This logic applies all the way to the river. Miller says that in a heads-up pot, given bet sizes of between half to two-thirds of the pot, you need to continue with 70% of your range on each street. If you don’t,  you are exploitable, and are burning money. Equally, if you are the aggressor, you need to bet 70% of your range on each street as well, for similar mathematical reasons. (You are exploitable if you bet 70% on the flop but give up, say, half the time on the turn.)

A visual illustration of this rule is the pyramid below. The base is the range of hands you enter a pot with preflop. You discard 30% of it on each street. Miller asserts that the sides of this pyramid should be smooth. Where the pyramid goes out of whack is where a player has a leak. If a player calls too wide preflop and then plays fit or fold, you exploit him on the flop. Some players fold too much on the turn; double-barrel against them. Some preflop agressors give up too often after one c-bet; float against them with any two. And so on. (Note that the pyramid is a guide in heads-up pots, not multiway ones.)

image

What you need to do to play optimally is to constuct this pyramid for yourself. First, you need to be tight preflop. This way, it will actually be feasable to follow the 70-70-70 rule. For example, if you play 22% of all hands in a full-ring game, by the time you get to the river you will be left with 7.5% (.22 x .7 x .7 x .7), of which 5% will be value and 2.5% will be air. But you will continue with different parts of this preflop range on different flops, such as A33r or QT6 two-tone. You need to construct your ranges accordingly, which takes tons of homework.

Miller’s book is partly inspired by Matthew Janda’s Applications of No-Limit Hold ‘em, and while he lays out what seems to be a framework towards game-theory optimal (GTO) play, as Janda explicitly does, Miller oddly doesn’t mention that term anywhere in the book. The thing with GTO poker is this: even if you don’t intend to play that way, merely understanding what it is can help you identify and exploit other people’s leaks, while eliminating your own. In that context, you might find Miller’s Pyramid to be quite the wonder.

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For more, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 8:32 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

23 July, 2014

The ABC of Poker

This is the 16th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

How does one learn poker? I often get asked this question, and over the last few months, I’ve been approached a number of times by people asking me to coach them. Each time I’ve turned them down, explaining quite honestly that I’m still learning the game myself, and am not competent to coach anyone. But how am I learning and how did I learn? If you’re a beginner to the game, maybe falling in love with its complexities as I once did, where do you start?

Poker is a deep enough subject to be taught in universities, the way game theory or mechanical engineering or computer programming are. The problem is that its body of knowledge is recent and dispersed. There were a handful of books a beginner could learn from ten years ago, and they’re mostly redundant now. The explosion of online poker in the last decade led to an exponential increase in the analysis and understanding of poker. Despite this, there is no existing equivalent of a college course on poker anywhere, no syllabus one can follow.

Anyone who teaches you poker will be doing so in a piecemeal manner. For example, a typical online coach will ‘sweat’ you – ie, watch you play – and comment on aspects of your play as he watches. Or he might review your hand histories and tell you things you could have done differently. But the ideal way to teach a subject is to teach fundamentals first, then proceed, in a modular fashion, through different levels of complexity. None of the various training sites for poker have managed, or even attempted, something of that sort.

I learnt poker when I stumbled upon it online, played with play money for a while, then got interested and bought some books, and finally took tentative steps into live poker. I was lucky that during my learning curve, the games were very soft because everyone else in India was also new to it, and I ran good in my early days. In other words, I learnt while being profitable. That is almost impossible today.

If you’re learning the game, here’s my advice to you. Number one, understand that this is a game where luck plays a huge role in the short term, and any skill you develop only manifests itself in the long run. So do not be results-oriented, but process-oriented. Having said that, don’t use this as a crutch and delude yourself into thinking you’re better than you are.

Two, be self-critical. In other fields, if you don’t improve, it’s okay, you get away with it, the world is mediocre. In poker, if you stop learning, you lose money. So question every action that you take, even when you are winning. Don’t be defensive.

Three, keep working on your game. Ideally, for every three hours of playing, put in one hour of analysis. This will expand your thought processes and bring clarity to your play.

Now, what do I mean by working on your game? There are three facets to this. First, you take in information. Read books and watch training videos. Ed Miller’s books are excellent for learning cash games, and Jonathan Little and Betrand Grospellier have written the most state-of-the-art books available for tournament play. For game theory, check out Matthew Janda and Will Tipton. As for videos, see Vanessa Selbst and Andrew Seidman’s videos on Deuces Cracked, Janda’s theory videos on CardRunners, Andrew Brokos’s on Tournament Poker Edge and everything on Run It Once, Phil Galfond’s amazing site.

Second, interact with the community, and get exposed to cutting-edge thought. Forums, especially Two Plus Two, is where the modern game was born. Become a participant, keep testing your assumptions, learn from your peers.

Third, do lots of analysis at home on hands you play. There are some fantastic tools out there, like The Odds Oracle by ProPokerTools, which helps you analyse and understand equities, and Flopzilla, which helps you understand how different ranges connect with different types of flops. These are as essential for a poker player as a gym is for a bodybuilder. Put in the hours.

While learning about poker, I also learnt a lot about myself – and some of those lessons were difficult ones. But let’s leave that for another day.

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For more, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 11:42 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

16 July, 2014

Running Good

This is the 15th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

An epic battle took place a couple of days ago at a local game I play. A gentleman I shall call Fearless Builder was raising blind every hand to 8bb. He’d get two or three callers, and then the guy to his right, Action Builder, who had limped earlier, would make it 50bb, also blind. Fearless would call blind, and then the table had to decide what to do. We were all waiting for hands to take them on – anything ahead of their obviously wide blind ranges – and an affable chap at the table, who I shall call Persian Emperor, started getting cards.

He had KQo one hand, stack of 250bb, he ripped it in. Both Action and Fearless called blind. Action had K6o, Fearless had T6o. Fearless won. Emperor rebought for 250bb. An orbit later, same scenario, he was all in with JJ. Fearless called blind with 89o, hit two pair, took it down. Another orbit later, Emperor gets in 300bb with KK. Action and Fearless call blind. Flop is J94r. Action shoves blind for side pot, Fearless calls blind, another 400bb each. Action flips over 84o. Fearless shows 22. Emperor sighs in relief. Turn 2. River 2. The table erupts.

Emperor gets up to go. ‘Can’t believe how bad I’m running,’ he says. ‘No point playing any more.’ Fearless, who was down 500bb when he started playing blind and is now up 2000bb, says, ‘I can’t believe how good I’m running. I should go buy a lottery ticket.’ Their sentiment is understandable – Emperor did run bad and Fearless ran like God – but the conclusions they drew from this is flawed. Both might have been joking, of course, but I have heard too many people speak in terms on running good (or bad) in the present continuous sense, as if a narrative has been set for their session by some higher power, and they’ve managed to identify it and must adjust. ‘I’m running good today so I’ll play every hand.’ That kind of thing.

The truth is that we can identify streaks of luck only in retrospect. If luck favours us through a session, we can look back on it as ‘running good’, but to assume that we are in the middle of a streak and will continue being lucky is fallacious. The deck does not have a memory, and nothing is pre-ordained. Every hand is new.

Cognitive psychologists call this the Hot Hand Fallacy. It is ingrained in us because we have evolved to be pattern-seeking creatures, and are daunted by randomness. If we suffer four bad beats in a row, we are naturally wary when we get our money in good again, although we shouldn’t be. If a perfectly weighted coin falls ‘heads’ five times in a row, there is no logical reason to believe that it will come up ‘heads’ the sixth time. Coins don’t have memories, and nothing is destined.

Interestingly, I also see players around me display the opposite tendency: the Gambler’s Fallacy or the Monte Carlo Fallacy. If we give in to this, then when a coin falls ‘heads’ five times in a row, we believe that the sixth flip must be ‘tails.’ Similarly, I see players who haven’t hit a flush draw the last eight times they had one believing that it ‘is due’, just around the corner. It isn’t, of course. Everything is random.

Logically, Emperor should have rebought and continued playing. He had run bad, but that didn’t mean he would continue doing so. (Hot Hand Fallacy.) A regression to the mean was inevitable – though not necessarily in the next hand. (Gambler’s Fallacy.) In the long run, though, if he continued playing, Emperor would surely win – but losing so much money does cause emotional turbulence, and perhaps Emperor was right to quit before he got tempted to play blind.

These fallacies apply not just to gambling but to life. We lose hope too soon sometimes when we run bad.  Equally, we often become arrogant, ascribing to skill or destiny what was merely good fortune. Life is, by default, a gamble we were forced into, and we owe it to ourselves to not be affected by past events, and to always do the right thing.

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Here’s a piece I wrote four years ago on the same subject: Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea.

For more, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 8:35 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

12 July, 2014

Football = Chess+Poker

This is the sixth installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Magnus Carlsen loves football. He kicked off a Real Madrid-Real Valladolid match on his 23rd birthday last November in a Real Madrid t-shirt, which he also wore to the Champions League final between Real and Atletico Madrid. Vishy Anand, who he beat for the World Championship last year, also supports Real Madrid, and their fanhood of this sport is befitting. Football is basically chess played on a field with 22 variables.

The main protagonists at the Champions League final were not any of their players, but the two coaches Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in Inverting the Pyramid, his magisterial book on the history of football tactics, “Football is not about players […]: it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment.” Coaches are the masterminds who, with over a century of history to draw upon, marshall their resources the best they can. To anyone aware of this history,and following the dynamics with each individual contest, football is deeply complex and extremely fascinating, even when a match is a 0-0 draw. The real contest in football is outside the penalty box, not inside. The goals are happenstance.

This is why it irritates me no end when so-called fans – mostly folk who wake up during the World Cup every four years – celebrate games with open, attacking football and lots of goals, and deride matches that are scrappy and messy. Fans who want lots of goals in football are like the philistines who just want lots of fours and sixes in cricket, and don’t appreciate the nuances of the struggle between bat and ball. Or like the newcomers to chess drawn to showy queen sacrifices, who are bored by epic positional battles. All these sports have changed and evolved for the better. If you brought Adolf Anderssen, the 19th century chess genius known for his breathtaking sacrifices, to play Carlsen, not only would Carlsen destroy him, so would 10,000 other chess players today. Similarly, if the much romanticized Brazil teams of 1970 or 1982 played today, they would have to change their style of play drastically to thrive. They were packed with great players, so I have no doubt they’d adapt well, but they’d certainly be unrecognisable from what we see on highlight reels on YouTube: teams today press much harder, and allow their opponents less space to perform their magic. Indeed, any match between two great teams today is likely to be scrappy and conventionally ugly, but complex in a way that is incredibly beautiful to a fan who pays attention to the tactics being used, to the many clashing tensions out there on the field. 

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The other game I love, besides chess, is poker. I’ve been a professional poker player for the last four years, and one of the things I’ve gained from it is a much deeper appreciation of the role of luck in sports, including in football.

Poker is a game where skill manifests itself in the long run, but luck plays a huge part in the short run. Here’s a simple example: Let’s say that you and I are all in on a flop where you hold the top pair and I hold a small flush draw. I am 38% to win the hand, you are 62%. Now, the first time this happens, I may hit the flush, and you lose. That’s just luck. It may even happen the first three or four times, if you get really unlucky. But over time, as we play this hand thousands of times, it will even out, and your win rate will reflect your equity in the hand – ie, you’ll win 62% of the time, and will make a profit. Poker is all about getting yourself repeatedly into profitable spots, on average,  and playing enough hands to make sure that the long run manifests itself, and you end up a winner – even though the outcome of any one particular hand may be decided by luck. But what does this have to do with football?

I read a fascinating book on football analytics recently called The Numbers Game, by Chris Anderson and David Sally. The book starts off by making the controversial point that football is “basically a 50/50 game. Half of it is luck, and half of it is skill.” They cite a study by Eli Ben-Naim, Sidney Redner and Federico Vazquez that looked at more than 43,000 games of football played in the top flight of English football since 1888 and found that the likelihood of the underdog winning was 45.2%. (A draw is considered half a win here, for statistical purposes.) Another study by Andreas Heuer examined 20 years of the German Bundesliga and “concluded that, mathematically speaking, a football match is a lot like two teams flipping three coins each, where three heads in a row means a goal and ‘the number of attempts of both teams is fixed already at the beginning of the match, reflecting their respective fitness in that season.’”

Many of the stats in that book call out to the poker players in me, given that I am now trained to think probabilistically. Over time, across leagues and continents, 20% of corners lead to a shot on goal, and around 11% of those go in. That means around 1 in 50 corners results in a goal. A masterful analysis of Lionel Messi by Benjamin Morris on fivethirtyeight.com reveals that Messi scores from outside the penalty area 12.1% of the time (one in eight times) and from a direct free kick 8% of the time (one in 12.5 times). Thus, every corner is worth 0.022 goals. Every Messi free kick where he goes for goal is worth 0.08 goals. In the long run, that’s what we get. In the short run, in a particular match, it’s largely luck, whether those go in or not. That is why the truest indicator of a team’s quality comes in a league format, not a knockout format, and England’s best team is likelier to be the winner of the Premier League than the FA Cup.

That’s what makes the World Cup so cruel. One unlucky day is all it takes for a dream to end. Consider two matches between Spain and Netherlands. In the final of the 2010 World Cup, Arjen Robben missed a great opportunity in the 82nd minute, ahead of all the defenders with only Iker Casillas to beat. Four years later, with Spain leading 1-0, David Silva missed a great chance to get them 2-0 up, which might well have sealed the match. The first miss cost Netherlands the World Cup; the second one proved costly for Spain as Netherlands stormed back into the match. Even after Spain disintegrated, though, they had 9 attempts at goal to Netherlands’s 13. Even in a match that one side won 5-1, luck played a big part. (For the record, I still think Spain is one of the best teams in the world and tiki-taka is far from finished – but that’s a topic for another day.)

The realisation of how big a part luck plays in any individual match hasn’t diminished my enjoyment of the game, but heightened it. The management of luck is at the heart of poker, and of football as well. The best coaches know this, always working hard to increase their probabilities of winning, optimising furiously, aiming for efficiency and, when they succeed, achieving a beauty that is more than just skin-deep. Football combines the qualities of chess and poker, and has much else besides. No wonder they call it the beautiful game.

Posted at 2:59 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Sport

09 July, 2014

Pop the Question

This is the 14th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

What is the difference between a good poker player and a bad one? I’ll take a shot at an answer: good players pose tough questions to their opponents. They bet, raise, 3-bet, float, call down, check-shove, use every weapon in the poker arsenal to take their opponents out of their comfort zones and induce errors. Bad players, on the other hand, fail to ask tough questions even of themselves.

As we play hundreds and thousands and millions of hands, we tend to develop certain standard ways of dealing with different situations. The immediate result of an action does not reflect the correctness of the play, so it is easy to develop bad habits, and to reflexively slip into flawed patterns of playing hands. Ideally, whenever a player is about to take any action at a poker table, he should ask himself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ This sounds banal and obvious – but you’d be amazed at how often players are not sure why they’re betting in a particular spot.

A poker book I recommend to beginners, Easy Game by Andrew Seidman, deals with this in its first chapter. (Like Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Don DeLillo’s Underworld, the first chapter alone is worth the price of the book.) It is called ‘The Reasons for Betting’, and makes the point that many of the justifications people give for betting are invalid and flawed. ‘I’m betting because I think I have the best hand’ or ‘I’m raising for information’ are terrible reasons to throw chips in the middle.

Consider this hand from a game I was at yesterday. My friend, on the button, called an early-position raise with KQo. The flop came KT3r. The original raiser bet, and my friend announced a raise. His opponent shoved, and my friend had to fold. I asked him why he raised. ‘For information,’ he replied. ‘To find out where I was at.’

This is terrible thinking. There are two primary reasons to bet or raise: for value, or as a bluff. To get a worse hand to call, or a better hand to fold. In this case, my friend’s raise made sure that only better hands in his opponent’s range continued, and worse hands folded. Put simply, he inflated the pot against hands that beat him, and lost the chance to pick up value from worse hands on later streets. In that spot, he should just have called. Anything else – folding or raising – is a losing play.

Every single time you put money in the pot, you should ask yourself why you are doing so. What impact does it have on your opponent’s range? Does a bet from you serve the purpose of being either a bluff or a value-bet? (You could also ‘merge’, or put in a bet that profitably aims to both get better hands to fold and worse hands to call. But this is advanced, and the wannabe Tom Dwans around me who use that term are generally misapplying it to thin-value bets.) Seidman also advances a third reason for betting, the ‘capitalisation of dead money’, which he defines as ‘making the opponent fold, whether his hand is better or worse, and collecting the money in the pot.’ But he warns that this is ‘rarely a primary reason for betting’, and I’d advise beginners to stick to betting just for two reasons: for value, or as a bluff. Not for information, or protection, or an assertion of how macho you are.

In life, as in poker, we often fail to ask ourselves basic questions. We sleepwalk through large chunks of our lives, doing the expected things, studying phalana in college, doing dhimkana job,  getting married, having kids, following the script. We get stuck in routines, imprisoned by inertia. We rarely ask ‘Why?’ And when we fail to do so, then, as in poker, we lose a little something.

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For more, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 1:31 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

02 July, 2014

Black Cats at the Poker Table

This is the 13th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

In a local poker room where I sometimes play, there is an inscription on the wall that says: ‘It’s unlucky to be superstitious.’ As this is the 13th installment of Range Rover, it’s an auspicious time to take on this subject. Sportspeople tend to be notoriously superstitious: cricketers, for example, often have particular rituals they do not deviate from before going out on the field, such as wearing the left shoe first, or looking back up at the pavilion before going out to bat. When a crucial partnership is going well, the players in the dressing room may be stuck to their seats while it’s on so as not to disturb the fragile equilibrium of the universe. It’s quaint and sweet and does no harm – not in cricket, at least.

In poker, beliefs lead to actions, and actions lead to money won or lost. An irrational belief, thus, can have expensive consequences. I play a local cash game sometimes with a group of builders, and one of them believes that 23 is his lucky hand, and that it will never let him down. He has lost a minor fortune because of his faith in that hand, and it is worth asking, how did he arrive at this belief, and why does he persist with it even when it’s obviously counterproductive?

At the risk of simplifying, I’d say that there are two key cognitive biases that lead to the birth and nourishment of superstitions. The first is a tendency to mistake correlation for causation. A man walks under a ladder in olden times, is attacked by a horse a little later, and boom, walking under ladders becomes a no-no. Black cat crosses path, wife runs off with neighbour; break a mirror accidentally, relative dies; call someone from behind as they’re leaving their house, they lose their job. We are pattern-seeking creatures, which is an important reason for our being the dominant species on this planet, but we often tend to go overboard, and ascribe causation where there is none. This is how superstitions are born.

Superstitions are sustained by another cognitive bias called the confirmation bias. Basically, we ignore all evidence against whatever irrational belief we have, and pounce on anything that seems to confirm it. If you believe a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, you’ll ignore all the times it happens and you have a good day, but pounce on the one time it is followed by some unfortunate event as evidence for your belief. My builder friend probably arrived at his superstition about 23 when he won a big pot early on with that hand. (Correlation-causation.) Since then, he shrugs off all the money he loses while playing that hand, but cites the pots he wins with it as evidence in its favour. (Confirmation bias.)

Poker players might have superstitions like having a favourite hand, or a particular seat ‘running hot’ during a game. But the flawed thought processes that lead to superstitions apply to every aspect of poker. For example, I used to overplay small suited connectors out of position until recently, a tendency that surely began when I cracked aces with it at some point. So I started overestimating the implied odds, considering the big pots I won with them as validation, and ignoring all the times I bled money getting into difficult marginal spots with them out of position. My mistaken belief had the same anatomical structure as a superstition, and I could only eliminate the leak when I came to terms with the cognitive frailties that gave birth to it.

To excel in poker, we have to draw conclusions from limited information, and put our opponents on ranges based on patterns of past behaviour. This is perilous, and it’s important not to get lazy, to constantly revisit our assumptions, and to think of the game in probabilistic terms, with few certainties. As for black cats, them kitties should not be feared, but cuddled.

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Previously on Range Rover:

Beast vs Human
Unlikely is Inevitable
The Colors of Money
Finding Your Edge
Raking Bad
Om Namah Volume
Make No Mistake…
Kitne Big Blind The
Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 7:57 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

25 June, 2014

Beast vs Human

This is the 12th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of the most important lessons I learnt as a live cash game player was to treat all cash games as one long session that lasts a lifetime. This helps us avoid the two classic bad habits that a live pro can develop: playing too tight when one is up during a session, to preserve profit; and playing too loose and recklessly when one is down, to recover losses. Ideally, you should try to play each hand in the most profitable way you can, without regard to whether you’re up or down, or what stage of the session you’re playing in. That is analogous to a batsman playing ‘one ball at a time’ in cricket, as the cliché goes. But it is easier said than done.

We might pride ourselves, as a species, on our superior intelligence, but however much we aspire to be perfectly rational creatures, we are wired to be emotional beings. Theodore Dreiser once described civilization as “still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer guided by instinct, scarcely human in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason.” I’m not sure if Dreiser played this great American game, but in every session of poker that I play, Beast battles Human. It’s fascinating as a spectator, and frustrating as a participant.

It’s easy to say that we should approach every hand with the same cool-headed dispassion, but there is a fundamental difference between the start of a session and the end of it. At the start, most players usually have between 100 to 250 big blinds. By the end, it is common for the average stack to be 1000bb, and for a couple of the big stacks to be approaching or surpassing 2000bb. In technical terms, decisions get harder as stacks grow bigger: at 100bb, I’m always content to raise with a pair-and-flush draw and go buckwild; at 1200bb, near the end of a 22-hour-session, I’m inclined to be more careful. I’ll gladly go broke with AA at 100bb; but if I stack off with it at 1200bb, I probably made a big mistake somewhere. Stack sizes make decisions exponentially more complex, and the consequences of mistakes more brutal.

But that’s a banal point. Of course it’s technically harder to play big stacks than small ones. But it’s the mental aspect that makes this a tough game. Remember, there is real money at stake here, and a bad day in poker feels much worse than in any other profession because in poker you actually lose money. In no other profession, if you have a bad day on June 25, can you lose your entire salary for April and May as well. Losses are felt viscerally, and taken personally. We rant at the guy who gives us a bad beat. We feel smug and superior when we’re running good. As a session progresses past the 12-hour mark, and people start getting tired, the beast starts taking over. We crave action, revenge, retribution, dominance. We want the biggest dick in the room.

I have seen grown men cry at a poker table. I have seen respected middle-aged businessmen tear up playing cards and demand a change of deck and dealer. I have seen (and felt) anger and humiliation and contempt and loathing and desperation. If sport reveals character, poker plonks a mirror in front of us and says, “Here you are, your ugly majesty. Where are your clothes?”

The longer the session, the deeper the stacks, the more there is at stake, the harder it gets. In your tumult of inevitable emotions, you’re supposed to be calm and rational, and exploit the infirmities of others. You’re supposed to do math, set up metagame, play ‘optimally’. You’re supposed to fight the beast – but the beast is who you are.

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Previously on Range Rover:

Unlikely is Inevitable
The Colors of Money
Finding Your Edge
Raking Bad
Om Namah Volume
Make No Mistake…
Kitne Big Blind The
Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 7:41 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

18 June, 2014

Unlikely is Inevitable

This is the 11th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

A few days ago, a friend rang me up to tell me a bad-beat story. He called a preflop raise in a home game with 33. The flop came A83r. The initial raiser c-bet, my friend raised, villain overbet- shoved for 500bb, my friend called, villain showed ATo. The turn was an ace. The river was an 8. ‘He was 2% to win the hand,’ my friend moaned. ‘How unlikely is that?’ ‘It’s unlikely,’ I replied. ‘But it’s also inevitable.’

That sounds contradictory, but it’s true, once you account for the lens through which you view poker. From a short-term perspective, the beat that my friend got is unlikely: it will happen one in 50 times. But the long view is that over the millions of hands that my friend will play in his life, this beat will happen to him again and again and again. To understand this, allow me to introduce you to a term coined by the mathematician David J Hand: ‘The Improbability Principle.’

In an excellent book by the same name, Hand lays out the Improbability Principle: ‘Extremely improbable events are commonplace.’ This seems counter-intuitive, but Hand elaborates upon it with a series of mathematical laws. The first of them is the Law of Inevitability: ‘If you make a complete list of possible outcomes, then one of them must occur.’ Lotteries are an illustration of this. Let’s say you buy a lottery ticket, and stand a 1 in 10 million chance of winning it. Every single person who has bought a ticket to that lottery has the odds stacked against him – and yet, someone will win: improbably, but inevitably.

Millions of poker hands are played every day across the world, mostly online.  At a conservative estimate, let’s assume that every week, 100,000 sets run into top pair. At 50-1 to lose,it’s likely that 2000 of these will be busted. Yours could be one of them.

The next law, the Law of Truly Large Numbers states: ‘With a large enough number of opportunities, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.’ If you play enough poker, you will run AA into a smaller pair repeatedly. You’re supposed to win around 80% of those, so if you play 10,000 such hands, you should expect to lose 2000 of those. And yet, I know people who whimper like a baby every time their AA is cracked by 88. In poker, everything that is unlikely in the short run is inevitable in the long run. 

Also consider the Law of Selection: ‘You can make probabilities as high as you like after the event.’ Let’s go back to the previous example of AA being cracked by a smaller pair. Over a sample size of 10k iterations, not only will this happen to you 2k times, but it’s likely that somewhere in there, you will receive that beat 4 times in a row. It would be a mistake to ignore the other 9996 times, select that sequence of four in a row, and whine, ‘My aces got busted all 4 times that I got them today, there’s a 1 in 625 chance of that happening, this site is rigged.’

Hand’s book has more math laws that explain the Improbability Principle, and I’d recommend it strongly to all my readers, not just to poker players. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and tend to give too much significance to coincidences and improbable events. Conspiracy theories and pseudosciences feed upon our misunderstanding of probabilities. Indeed, I think belief in God also relies, to a large extent, on our innumeracy. Perhaps my heresy is responsible for all my bad beats?

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Previously on Range Rover:

The Colors of Money
Finding Your Edge
Raking Bad
Om Namah Volume
Make No Mistake…
Kitne Big Blind The
Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 12:36 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Science and Technology | Sport

13 June, 2014

I Have Something To Ask You

This is the fifth installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Writing a column is an act of hubris. When you present a column to the world, you are essentially saying, before whatever you say in the column: ‘Listen to me, my opinions have value.’ No writer will deny that this is the implicit premise of the very act of writing columns. This is both arrogant and delusional, but we choose to be in denial of this, for if we were not how could we write, in the same way that we choose to be in denial of our mortality, for if we were not how could we live? Anyway,in today’s column, I shall not present my views before you. Instead, I will ask you a few questions, to which there are no right or wrong answers. These are just difficult questions, even if some of them have seemingly simple answers, and I present them in the hope that you might find some of them stimulating. I have just one request to make: Instead of just skimming over the piece, please pause at the end of every question and formulate an answer in your mind.

Question 1: Do you support the rights of two consenting adults to do whatever they wish with each other provided they do not infringe on the rights of anyone else? Q2: Why? Q3: Do you support gay rights? Q4: Do you believe in free markets?

Q3 and Q4 are related to Q1: If you believe that no one should interfere in what two consenting adults choose to get up to with each other, as long as they mess with no one else, then that should apply to both sex in a bedroom and commercial transactions. The moral case for not interfering with free markets and homosexuality is, thus, exactly the same. If you support gay rights because you believe in freedom, it would seem hypocritical to then condemn free markets. Or vice versa. If you support either of these because of a reason not based on your support for individual freedom, then that’s ok. But Q5, If so, what is that first principle you draw from?

Now, you might say that you support gay rights but not free markets, because much as you love freedom, you also have to look at the consequences of actions, and ‘unfettered’ free markets can have adverse consequences. (The same argument could be made from the other side about homosexuality and its impact of society.) Q6,  Do you believe that freedom should be subordinate to utility? That our attitude towards a particular behaviour should depend on the consequences of that behaviour? Q7, If so, who determines what the likely consequences of anything could be, and how we should therefore treat that act? A democratically elected government? Q8, If so, can you think of examples where a democratically elected government fucked up spectacularly? Q9, If so, might it make sense to instead enshrine certain principles in the constitution that even a democratically elected government cannot mess with? Q10, If so, should these include freedom? Q11, If so, what kind of freedoms should be included? Personal freedom? Freedom of speech? Freedom of sexual orientation and carnal intercourse? Economic freedom? Q12. If you value some of these over others, why so?

(To deviate a moment from questions and actually make an observation, allow me to point out that none of these are actually protected by the Indian constitution, although it pays lip service to a couple of them. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Moving further along the subject of freedom and consequences, here’s Q13: Do you believe that women should have the right to choose whether or not to abort a baby? I’m guessing that’s an easy one to answer, so here’s another easy one: Q14: Do you support the ban on female foeticide?

If your answer to both these questions is ‘yes’, then Q15, How can you resolve the contradiction inherent in supporting a woman’s right to choose whether to abort and being against female foeticide? If a woman has the right to choose to abort, aren’t her reasons behind this decision irrelevant to that right, and an examination of those reasons invasive to her privacy? You might personally find her reason for it repugnant, but should your feelings affect her rights? And as a general practice, should the feelings of some people be an excuse to abrogate the rights of some others?

Of course, if you are into consequences, you could argue that female foeticide should be banned purely because it skews the sex ratio, which is bad for society. But, to consider a thought experiment, what if in the natural course of things, 11 girls were born for every 10 boys, and the prevalent rate of female foeticide actually corrected this imbalance? Q16: Would it be okay then? If not, why not? (Apart from the rights of the foetus, which you already agree are subordinate to the rights of the mother if you answer ‘yes’ to Q13.)

I haven’t asked the questions above to show the absurdity in this position or that, or to bring you round to any particular way of thinking. These are thorny issues with many nuances. I’m a libertarian and a freedom fundamentalist, and I support both gay rights and free markets, with my support for the latter, though it stems from principle, being bolstered by the benefits of economic freedom. (Contrast the two Koreas.) But the first principles I draw upon are not the only ones you can construct a worldview from. And there are situations where even those first principles don’t lead me to a coherent answer. At times, one is left with more questions than answers. And that’s okay. We are feeble creatures, and don’t have to know everything.

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Previously on Lighthouse:

The Minister’s Lament
The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted at 5:35 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

11 June, 2014

The Colors of Money

This is the 10th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

If you read a lot of fantasy fiction, you would be familiar with parallel universes. In this real world, unfortunately, life is mundane and singularly singular, even if we do have the escape of fiction to console us. That said, there is one kind of person who does, indeed should, inhabit parallel universes: the poker pro. Poker players reside in three worlds, with three separate currencies: namely real money, Sklansky dollars and G-Bucks.

On Planet Earth, we play in real money: the dollars or rupees we actually win at the poker table. On Planet Sklansky, we play in Sklansky dollars. Named after David Sklansky, these measure the amount of money you would have won from a pot based on your equity in it. For example, you are in the big blind, and the small blind goes all in with 30bb. You have AKs, so you snap. He has AQo. He hits a queen and wins the pot. Now, you lost 30bb in the first universe you inhabit. But you had 75% equity, which translates to 45bb in a 60bb pot. Given that you put it in 30bb, that means that you made a profit of 15 Sklansky dollars in the second universe. The hand was played profitably.

The concept of G-Bucks, named after Phil Galfond, is a little more evolved. As Galfond defines it, ‘instead of taking your hand and seeing how it does against your opponent’s hand, you take the entire range of your hand and see how it does against his hand.’ (Your range against your opponent’s hand, and not your hand against his range, as some people misinterpret it.) Here’s an example from a recent hand I played:

I was at a cash game with a 500bb stack in the cutoff. An early-position loose-passive player with a similar stack raised to 5bb. I flatted with 75hh. The button, with a stack of 125bb, flatted, as did the small blind. The pot now had 21bb. The flop came Kh6h7c, giving me a pair and flush draw. It checked to me, I bet 15bb, the button made a small raise to 35bb, the other two guys folded, and, with effective stacks at 120bb, I shoved.

The button was a player who plays draws passively and has two seemingly contradictory leaks of always raising top pair for information and never folding top pair on a wet board. Given that I have little fold equity (FE),  I would only repop him with a value hand. My range here, thus, comprises made hands like AA, AK, 76, sets, and all combo draws such as straight-and-flush draws and pair-and-flush draws. I would never raise with a bare flush draw here, because I don’t have enough FE. The button tanked, said ‘I think you have a flush draw,’ and called. He had KTo, which held, and he doubled up. Now, let’s look at an earnings chart here.

In terms of real dollars, starting at the flop, I lost 120bb. In Sklansky dollars, as my hand had 52% equity against his hand, I gained 15.7bb. (The pot was 261, 52% of which is 135.7 minus my 120 that went in on the flop.) In the G-Bucks universe, though, I did really well: my range was 75.2% against his hand, which means I benefited by 76bb. He had made a huge mistake against my range, and though he got congratulated for his call by everyone at the table, I was quite pleased with myself.

In the long run, your score in these three universes will converge. But in the meantime, you will play much better if you focus on winning G-Bucks. Thinking of actual dollars won or lost makes you too results-oriented; and strange as it may sound, Sklansky dollars also focuses on outcome, in terms of which hand from your range you actually happen to have. You want to think in ranges, induce errors from your opponent and make as many G-Bucks as you can. Real money will follow, and you will have the best of all worlds.

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Previously on Range Rover:

Finding Your Edge
Raking Bad
Om Namah Volume
Make No Mistake…
Kitne Big Blind The
Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 3:42 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

04 June, 2014

Front-Loading in T20 Cricket

I have a piece up on Cricinfo today about a tactical innovation whose time has come.

Posted at 5:48 PM by Amit Varma in Small thoughts | Sport

28 May, 2014

Finding Your Edge

This is the ninth installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

‘Where is your edge?’ When you play poker, it is useful to ask yourself this question all the time. You make money at a poker table only when you have an edge over the other players. But how do you find it, and how can you quantify it? One useful prism through which to view this subject is a concept I was first introduced to by Tommy Angelo’s magnificent book, The Elements of Poker: Reciprocality.

‘Before anything flows,’ Angelo writes, ‘there must be a difference. Between different elevations, water flows. Between different pressures, air flows. Between different poker players, money flows.’ Angelo defines reciprocality as ‘any difference between you and your opponents that affects your bottom line.’ He writes, ‘Reciprocality says that when you and your opponent would do the same thing in a given situation, no money moves, and when you do something different, it does.’

Let me illustrate that with an example: You have A9s on the button and call a UTG raise from a straightforward ABC nit. The flop comes A82r, and you have top pair, weak kicker and a backdoor flush draw. He bets, you call. The turn is an offsuit J, the river is another brick, and he basically triple-barrels. Now, given player profile, you fold either turn or river. But you know that had the positions been reversed, then playing against you with A9s, he would have called all three streets because he can’t fold top pair. This, then, would be one difference between you and him. This would be a winning hand for you, even though you lost money on it, because you lost less than your opponent would have in your place. Since over time, in the mythical long run, everybody will get all hands and experience all situations, that makes you a long-term winner over him. This is reciprocality.

Note that you should evaluate hands based on what the most profitable play was, not what the result of it was. For example, you call a UTG raise with JJ, and the flop comes AJ9r with an offsuit 2 on the turn and 6 on the river. The optimal play here is to get as much of your stack in as possible with middle set. Now, if your opponent has AA for top set, you get stacked, which is fine, because over time you make far more here against AK, AQ, AJ, 99 etc than you lose to AA. (You’re playing ranges, not hands.) Someone who is more timid, or likes to slowplay when he shouldn’t, might lose less money than you in this hand. But that doesn’t mean he won the reciprocality battle: you took the more profitable line here. The expected value (EV) of your actions matters, not the outcome.

Angelo makes the excellent point that reciprocality matters not just in terms of the hands you play, but in every aspect of the game. There’s information reciprocality: do you give off less information than your opponents? There’s bankroll reciprocality: do you manage your bankroll better? There’s quitting reciprocaility: are you better at figuring out when to quit a session? And so on. Even something seemingly unrelated to poker like having a healthy diet or getting adequate sleep could give you reciprocality brownie points that translate into profit. Hell, your edge in poker could lie in avoiding oily food and carbonated drinks.

Reciprocality can be a useful prism through which to view the game. It can make you more observant and aware of your opponents’ weaknesses and mistakes, while helping you cut down on your own. Also, implicit in the concept is the realisation that what matters is not the cards dealt to us, but how we play them. In life, which is inherently unfair, we are dealt just one hand and have just the one lifetime in which to make the most of it. Whining about it is sub-optimal; get off your butt and do something today that makes a difference to your life.

Previously on Range Rover:

Raking Bad
Om Namah Volume
Make No Mistake…
Kitne Big Blind The
Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 10:45 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

21 May, 2014

Raking Bad

This is the eighth installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I’ve spent a lot of time inside casinos in the last few years – mainly in Macau and Goa – but there’s only one game I’ve ever played there: poker. In all other games, you’re playing against the house, and the odds are tilted in its favour. Whether it’s roulette or baccarat or slots, the house will always beat you in the long run. In poker, on the other hand, you play against other players, and it is a game of skill. For a rational gambler chasing an edge, it makes sense to only play poker inside a casino. However, you must be warned that this is not the whole truth.

Contrary to what some believe, poker is not a zero-sum game, where the winners win exactly what the losers lose. It is a negative-sum game. In every game of poker, the house takes a percentage of each pot. This is known as rake. And there is a maximum amount beyond which they cannot rake from any given pot – this is known as the cap. Now, the level of the rake has a decisive impact on how sustainable the game is. If the rake is too high, and even the skilled players cannot make a profit, then the game dies down. Abroad, over the years, the rake has evolved to that equilibrium where the house makes enough profit without taking so much money off the tables that the players disappear. This has everything to do with the cap, not the percentage of the rake.

The two main casinos in Goa where live poker is legally played are Casino Pride and Deltin Royale (formerly Casino Royale). These guys have had a duopoly on the legal poker scene in Goa for years, and their rake is therefore ridiculous: they charge 5% rake with a Rs 5000 cap. (Some casinos abroad take an hourly fee, but this hasn’t caught on yet in Asia.) The problem here is not the rake: casinos in Macau and Vegas also charge 5%, in some cases even more. The problem is the cap. In a 100-200 game, a 5000 cap amounts to 25 big blinds. This is, to my knowledge, by far the biggest rake cap in the world.  The standard cap is between 2 to 5 big blinds, and never, ever close to 25.

The rake, when it is too much, bleeds money off the table. If you win a big pot in a heads-up battle, since half the pot is the money you put in, you’re effectively being taxed at 10%. Everyone’s stack gets affected by this continuous taxation, and if after a few hours of playing you stack someone, his stack is much less than what it would have been if not for rake, so its effects go deep into the game. A friend of mine once played a heads-up game with an opponent in Royale, and they both sat with 1 lakh each. So there were 2 lakhs on the table. My friend stacked him three hours later and looked at his stack: 1.10 lakhs. The rest went to rake. I once played a session in Goa where after eight hours of play, all the players were stuck. Needless to say, I don’t play in Goa anymore.

The Goa guys get away with it because there is a steady tourist influx that is a captive audience on their boats and doesn’t know better. So they don’t have to worry about damage to the ecosystem. Underground games in the Indian cities have lower rakes than Goa, so winning in them is easier. Regardless, the effects of rake are such, worldwide, that most players are losers and most winning players are marginal winners. If you take poker seriously, you need to be aware of how the rake affects you. To be a big winner, you not only need to beat the other players, you need to beat the rake.

Since I began writing this column a few weeks ago, one of my big themes has been the lessons one can learn about life from poker. However, there is one sense in which life is dramatically different from poker, and indeed from all other sports, which tend to be zero-sum. Life is a positive-sum game. You don’t win at someone else’s cost, you generally win when they also win. Take free markets, for example: every transaction has two happy people at the end of it, believing they are better off for it. (John Stossel memorably called this the ‘double thank-you moment’.) No one rakes our happiness – so no moping around today, go and hug someone you love.

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Previously on Range Rover:

Om Namah Volume
Make No Mistake…
Kitne Big Blind The
Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 10:55 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

17 May, 2014

Seven Thoughts on Modi’s Mandate

All right, here are some quick thoughts on the election results:

One, I’m overjoyed that the Congress got hammered. We are close to seeing the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in politics, which is fantastic. This vile family has caused incalculable damage to our country with its destructive economic policies, which has kept our country poor for the seven decades since independence. It’s impossible to quantify the effect of this, but I believe that this family has orders-of-magnitude more blood on its hands than, say, a Narendra Modi would even if all the allegations against him were true. I’m glad to see them finished as a political force, though it is likely that they will continue to be a political spectacle for a while yet, which I welcome. Pappu provides much amusement.

Two, I’m ambivalent about Narendra Modi but I’m glad he has a decisive mandate. Here’s why I’m ambivalent: I’m classical liberal (or minarchist libertarian, if you will), and freedom matters a lot to me. I want a free society with free speech and free markets. In conventional terms, I’d be right-of-centre on economics and left-of-centre on social issues. The BJP is right-of-centre on both. So I worry about issues like freedom of speech—but remember that the Congress had a deplorable record on this front, and was, in fact, the party that banned the Satanic Verses. We have so far been a reasonably pluralistic society; that, and our (meagre and somewhat inadequate) constitutional safeguards should protect us if the RSS nutjobs get out of hand. One can only hope.

On economics, Modi can’t do worse than the UPA did. Yes, I worry about crony capitalism, but Modi has done a lot to create a conducive environment for small businesses in Gujarat, and his main campaign slogan, ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ is music to my ears. But it will take a lot of doing, and this is why I’m glad his mandate is so overwhelming, and he is free of the constraints of coalition politics. He now has the power to get the job done, and no scope for excuses. He can carry out the measures that are essential if we are to be the manufacturing superpower that he has said he aspires to make India. (I’d start with labour reforms.) He can reduce the number of ministries at the centre, cut down on red-tapism throughout the country, and reform agriculture and education, moving from a culture of patronage to one of empowerment. He has the power to do all this; we will now see if he can walk the talk.

Three, this is a seminal moment in Indian politics, and the political landscape has changed forever. It is estimated that around 100 million people voted for the first time in these elections, part of a demographic shift that is going to continue. If these new voters alone were a country, that country would be the 12th largest in the world, bigger than Germany, France or the UK. This country is where the Modi wave happened.

While this nebulous wave might have been embodied in the figure of one man, consider what it stands for, and why so many first-time voters exercised their mandate: These people are shrugging aside considerations of identity and patronage politics: caste or the Gandhi family do not matter to them. They want progress, development and also, implicitly, the eradication of poverty, which goes hand-in-hand with the first two. For seven decades, parties have only paid lip service to that last aim, and followed policies that perpetuated poverty and nurtured vote banks. Modi embodies the hope that we can break away from this. Even if he doesn’t deliver, and these new voters, and other new voters to come next time, abandon him, we can see the parameters based on which they are making their choices. Those won’t change. The parties that don’t adapt themselves to this new political marketplace will be ejected with, as Pappu would say, ‘the escape velocity of Jupiter.’

Four, It will nevertheless not be easy for the BJP to replicate this performance the next time around. Consider that a big part of this wave was the party winning 71 out of 80 seats in UP, masterminded by their brilliant strategist, Amit Shah. Now, one can expect the BJP to also win the next UP assembly elections. So at the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019, they’ll face double incumbency in UP. They’ll be fighting on the basis of performance, not promises, and perceptions of the former will depend not just on Modi’s governance, but also extraneous factors like the last monsoons and the state of the world economy. A few percentage points could lead to a huge swing in terms of seats.

Five, Consider the percentages. In terms of seats, the BJP did 6.4 times better than the Congress. In terms of vote share, they did 1.6 times better. (31% to 19% of vote share respectively, nationally.) The Congress is moribund, relying on feudalism, led by morons, and I expect their vote-share to drop. But note that relatively small swings in terms of votes can lead to much bigger swings when it comes to seats in parliament. Don’t take anything for granted in 2019. A 4% swing away from the BJP, for whatever reason, would almost certainly result in a coalition government.

Six, AAP has shown itself to be the political economy’s equivalent of candlelight vigils and online petitions, both futile gestures made by self-righteous people who want to feel good about themselves and lack an understanding of how the world works. Leave aside its constituency, the party itself was a meld of contradictions, defined only in opposition to others. It articulated a faith in government and leftist economic policies that would take our country backwards, not forwards. It claimed to speak for the common man—but the common man chose the chaiwallah over the income-tax officer.

What really got my goat was the coverage given to AAP by our Delhi-centric media. This was a party expected to get at best 10 seats in a parliament of 543. (I expected them to get one [Rakhi Birla], they surprised me and got four [Punjab].) And yet, from the media coverage given to them, you’d think they were a major contender to form the government. William Dalrymple, in fact, referred to Arvind Kejriwal as one of ‘the three front-runners’ in these elections. Immense WTFness.

Seven, What about 2002? Was Modi personally responsible for engineering the riots? If he was, nothing else matters, and that would be enough to condemn him. But was he? I’ve spent a fair bit of time going through the evidence to implicate him (quite convincing) and the defences in his favour (also, weirdly, convincing). I know that almost all my friends will jump on me for saying this, but I no longer believe that it is possible for anyone on the outside to know, for sure, whether he engineered those riots. The facts are such that what you choose to believe will be what you want to believe, and will reveal more about you than about him. This is an epistemological position, not an ideological one; and I therefore have no choice but to consider him innocent until proven guilty, though he can be proven neither innocent nor guilty, but I know where the burden of proof lies.

In any case, as I’ve written before, I believe that Modi acts purely out of self-interest and not ideology. At the centre, he will do whatever he believes will increase his political capital. I don’t think communal violence will be part of that equation. I think development will. That gives me hope.

Posted at 1:57 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics

14 May, 2014

Om Namah Volume

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.

*

Previously on Range Rover:

Make No Mistake…
Kitne Big Blind The
Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 9:01 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

09 May, 2014

The Minister’s Lament

This is the fourth installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I love group photos. All the ministers of this new government had gathered to be shot, and I was dressed in my finest khadi. My party wasn’t originally part of this coalition, which consisted of one national party and 16 regional ones, and ended with 269 votes. It needed three seats, and I had four, mostly thanks to biriyani and fractured votebanks. They promised to make me a minister. ‘Actually we’ve run out of ministries,’ I was told, ‘but we’re creating a few new ones to keep up with demand.’ I took my place in the group portrait. The photographer stood a long, long way back.

The next day I showed up at the newly built Secretariat 3, was shown into my office, and met my secretary, Mr Batra. As we waited for word from the PMO about what we were supposed to do exactly, he showed me what Twitter was. Who knows, he said, it might come handy sometime.

Who woulda thunk? That evening, word reached us that I was now the first ever Minister for Social Media (MSM). I was asked to go to the PM’s office within an hour, where I would be handed a statement that I would read out at a press conference. We duly headed off. We could have walked, but I chose to be driven in my official Honda Accord with a red beacon on top. Sitting inside, siren blaring, beacon flashing, I remembered the village where I had been born.

‘The Ministry for Social Media,’ I read out, ‘will empower the youth of our country by ensuring the smooth functioning of social media. We will make sure that poor and disempowered people everywhere have access to it. Everyone will have a voice. Thank you.’

‘Minister,’ a voice piped up behind the many television cameras, ‘social media functions well enough on it’s own, and already gives a voice to the disempowered. What more will you do? Will you censor social media?’

‘No questions,’ barked Rameshwaram, the secretary from the PMO, and ushered me backstage. As I left he told me, ‘Good luck minister. And a word of advice: keep a low profile.’ I pondered on this as I was driven home, siren blaring, beacon flashing, trying my best to be low key in the car. People stared.

When I reached office the next morning, Batra was exultant. ‘I’m already at work on budgets, sir,’ he said. ‘We’ll need new departments. One each for Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, YouTube. Hahaha, Yummy!’ I wasn’t quite so happy. The ministry did not give licenses for anything. No one had to come to me for permission to do phallana dhimkana. I controlled nothing; and therefore had no sources of revenue. All these years of building my political career and this was my reward: a cow without teats. But I did have power. Now, how would I use it?

Soon enough I started getting phone calls from ministers. A sex tape of Ram Lakhan Yadav had just been uploaded on YouTube. (‘It’s doctored, of course, but even then, my good name is being besmirched, samjhay na?’) The PMO called to say that there was a fake Facebook page up purporting to be the official PMO page. Mrs Goel, minister of women’s welfare, informed me that some people on Twitter were abusing her. And so on. I was asked to get these pages removed, the users banned, and in one case, arrested. (He had threatened to attack Mrs Goel.)

We couldn’t go through with the arrest because the culprit turned out to be a 65-year-old professor of anthropology in the US, but YouTube videos and Facebook pages were removed, Twitter users banned. I even assigned a few minions to edit and monitor the Wikipedia pages of my fellow ministers. My ministry grew; we were never short of work.

And yet, policing social media felt like trying to empty out an ocean with a bucket. By the end of the first month, there were six Facebook pages pretending to be the PMO’s official page. We’d ask for one to be taken down, two more would pop up. Ram Lakhan Yadav could have started a TV channel, there were so many different clips of him engaging in carnal contact with members of both sexes. (‘All doctored, this is a conspiracy against me. I think the CIA is involved, samjhay na?’) Mrs Goel had a fan club bigger than Scarlett Johansson, and horror of horrors, there were even people attacking me on Twitter, the audacity of it.

It got worse. Three big corruption scandals broke out via social media in month 2 of the government. I felt a certain schadenfreude at that, and was secretly gleeful that they happened at ministries I was denied. Meanwhile, the PMO was frantic. I told Rameshwaram that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube all complied with our requests: but there was only so much they could do. ‘Can’t we just stop the internet itself?’ I asked. ‘Let no one in India access it?’

Rameshwaram sighed. ‘I set up a committee to examine the matter,’ he said. ‘But the only thing the bastards on the committee did was surf porn. No, we’re stuck with the internet, I’m afraid. Find another solution.’

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I sat with a glass of my favourite single malt at 11pm in my office when I got a new email. The subject: ‘Your naked pictures are now on Twitter.’ I instantly clicked through to the link provided, but Twitter didn’t open, some other site did, and then my computer went blank. So did I. You have seen the video by now on YouTube: I stood up, punched the monitor off the desk, threw my glass of single malt across the room, slammed my phone down on the ground and banged the wall saying ‘Shit, Shit, Shit.’ (All this while my peon was shooting the action like he’s Govind Nihalani.) Yes, I banged that wall, till my fists bled and I was sobbing. I never thought it would come to this, that I would be a minister in the biggest democracy in the world, and I would. Feel. So. So. So. Helpless.

*

Previously on Lighthouse:

The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted at 2:24 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

07 May, 2014

Make No Mistake…

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.

*

Previously on Range Rover:

Kitne Big Blind The
Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 8:21 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

30 April, 2014

Kitne Big Blind The?

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.

*

Previously on Range Rover:

Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 7:44 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

23 April, 2014

Sweet Dopamine

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.

*

Previously on Range Rover:

The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 8:51 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

16 April, 2014

The Balancing Act

This is the third installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

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.

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For more on the use of game theory in poker, here are three recent books I recommend highly:

Applications of No Limit Hold’em by Matthew Janda is a primer for GTO play in six-handed games. It’s an outstanding book, and I also recommend checking out his training videos on Cardrunners.com.

Expert Heads Up No Limit Hold’em by Will Tipton uses game theory to analyze heads-up play.

Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top by Ed Miller deals with optimal betting and calling frequencies, and how to construct ranges that can help you conform to those. Here’s Miller’s website; and you’ll find a recent interview of his on Andrew Brokos’s podcast here.

If you want to learn more about game theory in general, outside the context of poker, The Art of Strategy by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff is a fantastic introduction.

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Previously on Range Rover:

The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted at 10:22 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

11 April, 2014

The Language of Indian Politics

This is the third installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Indian politics is a strange beast. I just completed an online politics quiz that promised to tell me which political party I should vote for based on issues. I answered questions on economics, foreign policy, healthcare and brands of dog food to be told that I supported 81 per cent, 78 per cent and 68 per cent respectively of the main three parties’ positions. In truth, I am repulsed by Indian politics – but that finding is not as absurd as it seems.

How does one think about Indian politics? In Arnold Kling’s excellent book, The Three Languages of Politics, he argues that American politics revolves around ‘three dominant heuristics (oppressor-oppressed, civilization-barbarism, freedom-coercion).’ Progressives look at the world through the prism of oppression, conservatives through that of Western civilisational values being under threat, and for libertarians, individual freedom is paramount. These three ‘tribes’ have their own political language which usually just serves the purpose of talking past the others, who they typically regard as ‘unreasonable’. They frequently engage in ‘motivated reasoning’ – parsing the facts for only those that support the conclusions they’ve already reached – instead of ‘constructive reasoning’ – analysing the facts on their own merit to try and arrive at the truth. Kling argues that the political space in America is getting more and more polarised because these three tribes just can’t talk to each other anymore.

Now, in a superficial sense, it might seem that these heuristics are relevant to Indian politics. The BJP, with its religious nationalism, might seem like an Indian version of American conservatism. The Congress, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian Socialism to Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ to Rahul Gandhi’s vacuous social welfare talk, might seem to fall into the progressive camp. Local political commentators have long been used to analysing Indian politics in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’. This is misplaced.

In America, while the beliefs of each side might seem idiotic to the other, they are at least internally coherent. The political parties in India, in contrast, are all over the map. If you cut-paste paragraphs from the party manifestos and submit me to a blind test on who said what, I would surely fail. (The fault would not be mine.) And if we ignore rhetoric and examine the behaviour of the parties when in power, whether at the centre or state level, the difference between them is negligible. If the BJP is against free markets – witness their stand on FDI in retail – the Congress has always been an enemy of free speech – they are the ones who banned The Satanic Verses. Who is left and who is right?

There are two factors that shape politics in India. One is the nature and structure of government. Our government is far more powerful than it should be, with an excess of discretionary power over the common man. We are worse off under our government, regardless of which party is in charge, than we were under the British. Our government is effectively set up not to serve us, but to rule us – and to extract hafta from us as the underworld would. Think of political parties as rival mafia gangs fighting for the right to loot us for five years.

The second factor shaping our politics is the nature of our electorate. Most of our politics is local; and all of it is tribal. Our tribes aren’t formed around ideas or ideologies, though, but around identity. (Caste and religion, mainly, in that order.) And the art of Indian politics is creating and sustaining votebanks out of these many disparate tribes. The alleged pseudo-secularism of the Congress, for example, is a consequence of their wooing minority votebanks. The rise of the BJP in Gujarat in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, in fact, was partly because the Patels and the Brahmins came into the BJP fold as a backlash to the Congress masterplan of consolidating their KHAM votebank (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) with the help of reservations. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement, a political masterstroke, finished off what was left of the KHAM alliance. There were no higher ideals being pursued here: Indian politics is about patronage, about mustering up enough votes to get to power; and then rewarding the folk who got you in.

Our two main parties are an abomination. The Congress is an empty shell devoid of belief, and tied up in a feudalism that has harmed our nation and made Narendra Modi possible. (India would be a better place if Kamala Nehru had had a headache all of February 1917.) The BJP has its roots in a religious outfit in which grown men show how macho they are by doing PT drill in khaki knickers, though I believe their leader is more in thrall of Mukesh Ambani than Veer Savarkar. Hindutva is just a political tool. Offer Modi a chance to rule in hell or serve in heaven, and he will choose hell. Power is the only religion.

AAP might appear to be an exception to this – but is it really? It defines itself mainly in opposition to the other players – ‘politicians bad, we’re the common man, vote for us’—but what exactly do they stand for themselves? How you you reconcile a party that brings together strange bedfellows such as Kumar Vishwas and Medha Patkar, Meera Sanyal and Prashant Bhushan? Arvind Kejriwal correctly focussed on a huge problem in our country – corruption – but came up with a solution that would make the problem worse. (Instead of reducing the discretionary power of government, which is the root cause of corruption, he wants to add an extra layer of discretion in the form of a Jan Lokpal. Like, duh, that will work, really?) They’re an outstanding political startup, but politics is to governance what courtship is to marriage, and we all saw how they behaved in Delhi. 

One remarkable thing about these elections is that it seems to have shaken the young, the urban, the middle-class out of their apathy. I can’t say the same for myself.  It’s going to be a long, hot summer, and I’d like some lemonade.

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Previously on Lighthouse:

Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted at 9:56 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

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