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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


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And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Sport

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 by Amit Varma on 27 August, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 20 August, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 13 August, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 06 August, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 01 August, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Poker | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 30 July, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 23 July, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 16 July, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 12 July, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 09 July, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 02 July, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 18 June, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Science and Technology | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 11 June, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


Front-Loading in T20 Cricket

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 June, 2014 in Small thoughts | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 28 May, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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.

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Previously on Range Rover:

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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.

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Previously on Range Rover:

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 May, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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.

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Previously on Range Rover:

Sweet Dopamine
The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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.

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Previously on Range Rover:

The Balancing Act
The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


The Numbers Game

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

‘Math is over-rated in poker,’ said a friend the other day. ‘Poker is about psychology, reads, getting inside your opponent’s heads. Math, shmath, pah.’ This is a popular view among many recreational players – but they couldn’t be more wrong. In my view, maths is the foundation of poker, and everything else feeds into it. If you do not master the numbers game, you cannot master poker.

Consider what a decision at a poker table involves. You’re in a hand against an opponent. From the information available to you, you try to put him on a range of hands, and modify that as the hand progresses. Your actions depend on two things: the equity of your hand against his range; and the likelihood of his folding or calling at any stage. Simply put, pot equity (PE) and fold equity (FE). Once you estimate those, it’s just a matter of crunching the numbers to come up with the mathemetically correct decision.

Now, your reads and psychological insights are not irrelevant. On the contrary, they’re among the tools you use to figure out your opponent’s range, and how likely he is to call or fold. In other words, they help you arrive at both your PE and FE in the hand. But having done that, it boils down to the math. Here’s an example.

Stacks are deep, you open with AJcc on the button. The big blind flats. The flop comes KJ2 with two hearts. BB checks, you bet, BB calls. You now put him on a range that includes any king he calls with preflop, any jack, middle pocket pairs like TT and 99, the open-ender with QT and any flush draw he called with pre. The turn is a brick, an offsuit 5. Both of you check. The river is another offsuit 5.  He now bets 75% of pot. What do you do?

You’d expect him to check back here with any jack, TT and 99. Let’s say he value-bets every hand that beats you, most probably top pair. And he bluffs with QT and every plausible missed flush draw. Against this range, we have 33% equity. Since he bet 75% of pot, we’re getting 2.3 to 1 to call here, meaning the call is justified if we have 30% equity. We have 33%, so we call.

But let’s say that you are an astute reader of this particular player, and of the situation. He tends to be passive, this session is almost over, he is about break-even after having been down. In this spot, you estimate he’d bluff with a flush draw or QT just 50% of the time, but would value bet a K every time. The numbers change: against the same range, but with the bluffing layer weighted at 50%, you now have 21% equity. You should fold.

Do you see what happened here? Your psychological insight and player profiling, maybe even a tell of strength you spotted, helped you make the correct play. But it was correct because the numbers said so, and your read merely helped you arrive at the right numbers. At the heart of it was the math.

Another example: A player raises from early position, you flat from the button. The flop is king-high with two hearts. He bets. If you choose to raise, what hands are you raising with here? That depends on both your equity against his range (PE) as well as how often he will fold (FE). If he is a nit who will fold 90% of the time, you can raise with complete air here. If he is a calling machine who doesn’t like folding, your hand needs to be stronger. If your reads help you come up with his folding frequency, math will do the rest.

Normally one puts opponents on ranges, and determines fold equity, based on observation and memory: from their past behaviour, we deduce their present tendencies. Psychology plays a part only at the margins. The great Indian offspinner Erapalli Prasanna once said in a cricketing context: ‘Line is optional. Length is mandatory’. Let me paraphrase that in poker terms: ‘Psychology is optional. Mathematics is mandatory.’

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Last week on Range Rover:

The Bookshop Romeo

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


The Bookshop Romeo

This is the first instalment of Range Rover, a new weekly column on poker I am writing for the Economic Times.

A young man enters a bookshop. He loves books. And he’s lonely. He spots a gorgeous young lady browsing a book by an author he loves, Milan Kundera. Their eyes meet; she looks away shyly. He decides to seize the day. He walks over to her, but just as he begins speaking—‘Hi, that’s one of my favourite Kundera…’—a hunky young man appears on the other side of this lady, and she squeezes his arm as he apologizes for having made her wait. Then they both turn to our young man. ‘Yes?’ she asks.

‘Erm, I was just saying, that’s my favourite Kundera book.’

They look at him blankly. ‘Who’s Kundera?’ she says.

And at this awkward moment, dear reader, I have a question for you: Did our hero make a mistake?

The answer to that lies in mathematics. And I will try and explain it through poker. Welcome to this first instalment of Range Rover, my weekly column on poker. The column is meant not for the complete layman, but for the hobbyist who knows the basics of the game. My reflections will be about the technical and mental aspects of the game – and also, sometimes,  about life itself. This first piece, with particular relevance to our Bookshop Romeo, is about ranges.

A mistake beginning players often make is of putting their opponent on a particular hand, and then seeing if they’re ahead or behind – instead of putting them on a range of hands, and calculating their equity against that range. For example, say you raise from early position with AKcc. Villain calls from the button. The flop comes Ks7h2h. You make a continuation bet, villain raises. What do you do?

In this spot, you need to figure out what range of hands villain could be doing this with. If he is a super-safe ABC nit who will only dare to raise here with hands that beat you—basically sets, AA and another AK, as no two-pair combo calls preflop—then your equity against his range is around 20%, and you must fold. If he is spewy-aggro and his range includes all flush draws and worse kings like KQ, KJ and KTs, plus some air, then you are around 60% in the hand and should continue. Now, sometimes you will call the spewy player and find that he has 22, but that doesn’t make your call a mistake: you made the right decision, but ran into the top of his range. Similarly, if you fold to the nit and he shows AK, it doesn’t mean you made a mistake there either.  The result of the hand has nothing to do with the correctness of your decision.

A beginning player would have put his opponent on a particular hand, and congratulated or berated himself based on whether he won or lost. But that would be a mistake, and there is a reason poker players are told not to be results-oriented. Your goal in poker should just be to make +ev decisions against your opponent’s ranges, and not think of immediate outcomes. To get the money in as a 60% favourite will make you rich in the long term – but losing four such hands in a row, as does happen, should not lead you to question the inherent correctness of your decisions. To paraphrase Krishna from the Bhagawad Gita, do the right thing, don’t worry about the fruits of your actions.

Let’s go back to our Bookshop Romeo. He is single, and sees a girl he likes. From the range of possible personality types, he narrows her down to potentially compatible ones because she is in a bookshop and holds a Kundera book. Furthermore, considering that the momentary embarrassment of being snubbed is not much of a cost to bear, given the benefits that are possible, he is getting practically infinite odds to make his move. So he does. It ends badly, but it wasn’t a mistake. Indeed, to not approach the girl would have been an error. He lost this hand – but he played it right.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


Good Old Dravid…

... is done. The next time India walk out to play a Test match, my favourite sportsman of all time won’t be there, and I’m not even sure I’ll feel like watching. India with someone else at No. 3 will seem like Led Zeppelin without Jimmy Page—and yeah, so what if Robert Plant does get that 100th hundred?

As you’d expect, there have been quite a few moving tributes to him, and I think this wonderful piece by Sambit Bal captured the man’s essence really well. An excerpt:

When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, I asked if he regretted not having retired in England. His response was a further revelation of character. He would certainly have retired if he hadn’t had a good series, he said, but after doing so well, retiring would have been selfish. There was a series to be won in Australia, and he owed it to the team to make the trip. And no, there were no regrets. He would do it no other way, even if offered a second chance.

I’d written a bunch of pieces on Dravid back in my days as a cricket writer, the last of which, I think, was this: ‘Rahul Dravid: Transcending History’. Many of the pieces celebrating him today and yesterday, unfortunately, seek to reinforce a bunch of entirely untrue cliches about him. No, Dravid was not just a dour technician with loads of patience—he was a beautiful, attractive strokeplayer at his best, who combined elegance and grace with a sense of purpose. No, he was not a misfit in one-day cricket: for a period of maybe four years, he was possibly even the best ODI finisher in the world, batting at Nos. 5 and 6. And no, despite the debacle of the 2007 World Cup, he wasn’t a failed captain: he led us to memorable series victories outside the subcontinent, in West Indies and England, something we hadn’t managed for a decade before he took over.

Anyway, here a bunch of pieces about Dravid that I enjoyed reading, by Sharda Ugra, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan (1 and 2), Rob Smyth, Patrick Kidd and Alex Massie.

Bloody hell, I’m going to hate cricket for the rest of this week. Sob.

Update: And here’s a fine piece by Mukul Kesavan: ‘Stylish in the Trenches’. The money quote:

It is a retirement freighted with more meaning than merely the end of an individual career. Rahul Dravid was an old-fashioned cricketer: he was a Test match batsman who was great without being glamorous, brave without being brash. He was, if you like, the polar opposite of Virat Kohli, Indian cricket’s new poster boy. When this honourable man called it a day, middle-aged fans across the subcontinent shivered: they felt a goose walk over Test cricket’s grave.

Update 2: Here’s a wonderful piece by Vijeeta Dravid on Rahul: ‘My Husband, the Perfectionist.’ I was touched by this bit:

When I began to understand the kind of politics there are in the game, he only said one thing: that this game has given me so much in life that I will never be bitter. There is so much to be thankful for, no matter what else happens, that never goes away.

Contrast that with some of the bitterness you see in some former and current cricketers.

Also, here’s a fine piece by Tanya Aldred.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 March, 2012 in Personal | Sport


I’m All In: Confessions of a Poker Obsessive

This personal essay by me appears in the winter edition of Forbes Life India.

I feel the ground sway under my feet as I get up. I gather my chips and walk unsteadily to the cashier’s cage. I’ve been playing poker for 40 hours now, and I’m up by the amount I used to earn in a month in my last job. But it’s been a swingy session, and I was down by a lot at one point till I fought back, and I was up by more than I am now till I lost a couple of hands. I’ve faced euphoria and devastation within 40 seconds of each other in the same hand, when I flopped the nuts—the best possible hand—on the flop, and my opponent, after going all-in on the turn, out-nutted me on the river. I’ve been on a high fueled by four Red Bulls and the excitement of winning, and now the ground is shaking and I wonder if I am about to faint and finally be punished for this brutal lifestyle. Then I realize, with some relief, why the earth is moving so gently under my feet: we are on a boat, after all—a floating casino in Goa, solidly anchored but still on water. I do not know what time it is, or what day, or whether I have missed my flight back to Mumbai. What I do know is that this session is over, I need sleep, and once I have rested I’ll be back for more.

I am a poker obsessive. This is a problem because it is difficult to state whether it is a problem or not. If someone is obsessed with tennis or chess or cricket, it becomes apparent soon enough whether they’re any good at it, and whether they have a future in it, because there are clear metrics to measure performance. If someone is obsessed with roulette or teen patti, it is equally clear that they are addicted to gambling, which can only be harmful in the long run. But poker exists in a twilight zone: it is both a game of skill, and a gamble. You could play it as a card game involving chance, and do it for the dopamine rushes that keeps addicts addicted; or you could study it as a science, bringing probability, game theory and psychology to bear on each carefully weighed decision. In the long run, a mathematical approach makes you money: If you keep getting your money in when the odds favour you, you will end up profitable. But in the short run, luck plays a huge role in the game. (The management of luck is the key skill in the game.) And in this short run, the wild gambler, the compulsive addict, can win huge amounts, while the skillful player can lose, and lose, and lose, despite constantly making the correct decisions, till he is emotionally imbalanced enough to actually start playing badly. Because this is a game that fosters self-delusion, that universal (and necessary) quality in human beings, it is impossible for me to say whether I am here as a gambling addict or as a serious sportsman. I know that I have both in me, and they battle every second that I am on the table.

I was drawn to poker, I suppose, for the same reasons that I was drawn to chess or scrabble: the intellectual challenge that it presented, and the competitive instinct that it fueled. I started playing the game three years ago, on the world’s biggest poker site, Pokerstars. Because of the difficulty in depositing money onto the site through Indian credit cards, which are barred by the RBI from depositing money on gambling sites, I used to play freeroll tournaments, that required no entry fee and had small guaranteed prizes. It was a good way to learn the basics of the game, and I followed it up by reading all the great instructional books in poker literature: the Sklanskys, the Harringtons, the Millers, the Brunsons, the Gordons. But this was all theoretical stuff, and I was itching to play live poker, with real people, who would give off tells when they bluffed me so I could make hero calls, like they do on television. None of my friends played poker, but early last year, I managed to get myself into The Sunday Game, a weekend gathering of poker enthusiasts in a suburban hotel in Mumbai. They’d book a room, organise a tournament, maybe two, with a Rs 3000 or 5000 buy-in, with 10% going to the rake to pay for the room, and the rest forming a prizepool for the top three or four players. Sometimes they’d play a cash game afterwards with a buy-in of Rs 1000. Looking back at the time, I realise that I was ridiculously bad: but playing with better players helped me, as did the fact that, being an obsessive with a steep learning curve, I worked hard on my game and got better really fast.

I still needed validation, though, and I got some when I went to Goa in June 2010 for the India Poker Championship, an event in which there were three tournaments held over the weekend at Casino Royale, a floating casino. Playing ABC poker, sticking to basics, I reached the final table of the main tournament, and got a modest payout for coming fifth. What was more thrilling, though, was how my cash-game sessions ended up. On the last day, I made a hero call against two all-in players on the turn, with one card to come, and won a pot worth Rs 1.5 lakhs. At the time, it seemed enormous to me, and I went home from that trip with a tidy profit.

Believing that mastery of the game was inevitable, I sought out cash games to play in Mumbai, and found one in a flat in Lokhandwala where I spent probably 100 of the next 120 nights. The apartment belonged to a player I shall refer to as Hunter, a savvy model and entrepreneur who conducted a home game every night, charging 2% of each pot as rake, and providing food and non-alcoholic drinks on the house. The first time I went there, the game had a modest Rs 5000 buy-in, with blinds of Rs 25 and 50. There was a raised platform on one side of the room, on which Hunter put a mattress, and we sat on that and by its side and played our game. Within three months, the blinds had increased to Rs 100 and 200, and the standard buy-in was Rs 20,000. Earlier, winning or losing 20 grand in a day was noteworthy: now, there could be three lakhs on the table at any given point, and you could win or lose a lakh in a day.

Naturally, Hunter had the platform demolished, and a new table and swank new chairs were purchased for us. My routine for about six months was this: wake up in the evening, pass time impatiently, and head off to Hunter’s place in time for the game to begin at 8 or 9 pm. The game would then go on till around 8 in the morning. I’d have a Red Bull while playing, and there would be chips and biscuits and fruits and other snacks. We could also order from any restaurant in the area, and ordering dal khichdi from Rhythm restuarant at 1am was, I recall, a common occurrence. At one point, Hunter decided that his players deserved healthier food. So a cook was hired for us, and though he was appallingly bad, at least we got home-cooked food in the middle of the night.

It was here that I discovered that the most important part of the game is the mental part: not in terms of calculating equity against opponent’s ranges and all that, which is of course essential, but in keeping your mental equilibrium through the inevitable swings of a poker session. I was given to steaming if someone gave me a bad beat after playing badly himself, and by allowing myself to feel angry or frustrated, I’d play worse than normal. I’d get bored and lose discipline and play more hands than I should, or passively chase draws even when the odds weren’t right for it. I’d lose more money playing badly than I won when I was playing well. The essential attribute of a poker player is that he must not be results-oriented, for good play is rewarded only in the long run, but must instead always focus on doing the right thing, making the correct play, regardless of its immediate consequence. (A la what Krishna said in the Bhagwad Gita.) It took time for me to cultivate that detachment in myself. (Having my iPod and Kindle with me helped conquer impatience.) Luckily, through that whole process, I remained a profitable player.

I also grew close to some of the other poker obsessives I played with. There is a strange dissonance at play here: on one hand, I wanted nothing more than to take the money of these people I played with, and I knew they wanted to empty my pockets as well; on the other, some of them became close friends, far more so than colleagues in an office would. Perhaps that is not quite so surprising: this was not an ordinary workplace where we met every day, but an emotionally fraught battlefield, such an unusual one that none of our non-poker playing friends could ever understand what it was truly like.

I also spent a while playing at a nearby club where some informal poker tables ran, and between these two places, met a wider cross-section of people than I would in any conventional job. Any writer would cherish meeting so many unusual characters: S, the government contractor who did not understand the game, was a true addict, and would mechanically push chips to the middle, pot after pot, every night, until his sources of funding, a probable by-product of Nehruvian socialism, dried up and he disappeared; P, the Delhi businessman who reportedly dropped around 75 lakhs over six months, and had to take a large loan from M, a player-cum-moneylender, who lent money at exorbitant rates (M was barred from Hunter’s game, though, which was relatively clean); B, the 20-year-old whose parents thought he was away nights because he worked in a call center, and who is now a full-time bookie; R, a reckless young gambler who called himself the Tom Dwan of Lokhandwala, and got into debts that he paid off by selling seats to a college where his father was a trustee; and others such as a couple of Bollywood actors and a cricketer who was as fearless on the poker table as on the field. (I say this in a good way.) They were fascinating people by themselves, but even more so in the context of this dramatic game, where emotional upheaval is routine.

The swings had a huge impact on us. On a day when I won a lot, I’d walk out with a lilt to my step, on top of the world, filled with self esteem and confidence, and women on the street would turn to look at me. When I lost, I’d be deflated and depressed, asking myself metaphysical questions not just about the point of this pursuit but of any pursuit. Eventually we got used to these fluctuations, as we needed to in order to stay sane. Our approach to money changed as well. Quite often, we’d have breakfast at the nearby Lokhandwala MacDonald’s; but equally often, a couple of us would head to the Juhu Marriott for the excellent breakfast buffet there. Earlier, in my middle-class way, I’d consider a Marriott breakfast an occasional extravagance. But now, when we were winning or losing over 30k in a day, we felt entitled to it. It cost, after all, no more than six big blinds. Or three straddles. Half a c-bet. Looking at the world through this prism made everything seem cheaper—though while at the tables, we never thought of the chips in terms of their real value, or we’d have been paralysed into inaction. (‘I can buy two iPads with the money I’m about to bet. OMG!’)

All this while, I kept going to Goa regularly. Last year, there was at least one tournament series every month; this year, one can easily spend four weekends there playing tournies continuously. I ended 2010 well, reaching seven final tables out of 14 tournaments played, including a second-place finish. But as I spent the first half of 2010 running bad in tournaments, I would put down both my good streak and my bad one to variance: these were short-term results, and the sample size was so small that it would be foolish to read too much into them. My focus remained cash games—until May this year.

By May, I’d overcome a downswing in the first part of the year—January was my only losing month—and had arrived at a healthy daily rate of profitability. But my game had stagnated, and I felt I needed to up it a notch. I decided to give up the potential earnings of the live games I played, and instead focus in a direction where immediate payouts weren’t likely: online poker.

Online poker is far tougher than live poker. The world’s best players play online, multi-tabling furiously, using complex tools that analyse their opponents’ historical betting patterns and raising frequencies. It is an evolved, highly technical battlefield, and most local players I played with had, like me, been small net losers online—despite a good streak here or there. Unlike many of them, I did not want to rationalise this away by cribbing that online poker was rigged. I wanted to conquer the beast.

Around the middle of this year, I joined a team put together by Adi Agarwal, a 26-year-old from Kolkata who has won more than US$ 3 million online in the last four years. (This is a matter of public record, by the way: there are websites that compile online results across all major sites, and everyone’s results, provided you know their username, are publicly available.) He had also finished in the top 100 of the main event of the World Series of Poker, the de facto world championship. (He declares his poker income and pays his taxes, for what it’s worth.) Adi wanted to stake us to play online and local tournaments with his money: in return, he’d get 50% of all winnings. Most importantly, he would go through our hand histories and actively coach us, taking care of leaks in our games. This was a win-win arrangement: it was risk-free in terms of investment for me, and a top player would share his insights on the game with me—almost akin to a tennis rookie being coached for free by an elite pro. And if his team played well, Adi would also stand to make more money than he could just playing on his own. (Such staking arrangements are very common, and most top players, to reduce variance, are part of such staking stables.)

For the last three months, thus, I’ve been playing at home. I’ve invested in a giant screen for my desktop, on which I can tile 20 tables at the same time. At 9pm, I start my online grind. At peak frequency, around midnight, I’m playing around 12 tables. By the time the night winds up, at around 8 in the morning, I’ve played over 30 tournaments. There is a five-minute break every hour, in which I have to pee/make coffee/get Red Bull from the fridge/make my ham-and-salami sandwich and so on. I also have the team on Skype, and we discuss poker, and how we could have played certain hands differently, and so on.

There is a method to this madness. Luck, or variance, plays a big role in poker in the short run, and the best way to counter this is to bring the long run closer by playing a lot. Online, you play many more hands per hour than you do live, and you can play multiple tables at the same time. The volume of play you put it, thus, could make a night of online poker equal to two months of live poker. If you play correctly, you are much more likely to be profitable—and the fields in online tournaments are so large that the occasional huge payout is likely for a good player. Just a month ago, I was chip leader in the biggest weekly tournament, the Sunday Million, with 25 people left. The first prize was over US$ 200,000; I ended up 18th for a fraction of that. An online grinder can make a healthy living stringing together smaller wins; but when the big one comes, it can be life-changing.

I still play live tournaments in Goa, though, and have won two in the last month. Hunter’s game in Mumbai has shut down for a host of reasons, one of them being a comical raid by the Anti-Terrorist Squad—a surreal story for another day. As many as four of the other regulars from that game have turned pro, and two of them regularly play high-stakes games in Goa, and speak of winning or losing five lakhs in a session as they used to speak of 50k swings six months earlier. The poker boom has only just started in India, and despite pending legal issues, hinging around poker’s acceptance as a game of skill, poker seems almost certain to become one of the country’s most popular sports.

And what about the way poker has consumed my life? I write a blog named India Uncut, which at its peak, when I wrote five posts a day, got 10,000 pageviews a day and had 17,000 RSS feed subscribers. Recently, I went two months without a post. My first novel, My Friend Sancho, was well received and sold well, but I just haven’t made enough progress on another one. (Among other projects, I’m planning a crime novel featuring a poker-playing detective who uses the cognitive tools he’s refined through playing the game to solve cases in the real world. A good way to bring my passions together, you think?)

When I gave up the corporate life to be a full-time writer, I had decided that I would only have one yardstick to judge my life: Do I wake up every morning looking forward to a day at work? And hell, I certainly do begin every day just waiting to being dealt in. I even played through an entire session in a dream one day, figuring out ranges and calculating equity in hand after hand after hand. And while I’ve given myself a deadline to start writing seriously again, until then, I will give myself up to this obsession. My chips are in the middle—I’m all in.

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And here’s a box that accompanied the piece:

There is an old saying that poker is the easiest game to learn and the hardest to master. Luckily, there are plenty of resources online you could use for either purpose. There are many sites where you could learn the basics of the game, but for a pithy explanation of the rules of the game, you could just start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_hold_%27em

The best site to play online is Pokerstars, at http://www.pokerstars.com. It’s the world’s biggest poker platform, is reliable and trustworthy, and while it doesn’t accept deposits from Indian credit cards, there are other deposit options that could help you get around that.

The best poker forums are on http://www.twoplustwo.com, and I highly recommend them. You could also check out http://www.cardplayer.com, the online face of the poker magazine. A good site to follow live coverage of events and news is http://www.pokernews.com. And to get the latest dope on Indian poker, there’s http://www.Pokerguru.in. (Disclosure: I’m part of their pro team.)

Finally, here are some great poker books. To understand the fundamentals of poker, there is no better place to start than ‘The Theory of Poker’ by David Sklansky. To improve your live cash-game skills, check out ‘No Limit Hold ‘em: Theory and Practice’ by Sklansky and Ed Miller. To understand the basics of tournament play, read the highly influential ‘Harrington on Hold ‘Em’ series by Dan Harrington. Some online players find its concepts outdated, and two recent books that are closer to the cutting edge when it comes to online tournament play are ‘The Raiser’s Edge’ by Bertrand ‘Elky’ Grospellier and others, and ‘Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker’ by Jonathan Little. To get an insight into the thinking behind high-stakes online cash games, check out the cult classic ‘Let There Be Range’ by Cole South and Tri Nguyen. And finally, to master the mental aspect of poker, read ‘The Elements of Poker’ by Tommy Angelo.

Good luck at the tables!

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Posted by Amit Varma on 28 October, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Poker | Sport


The Tiger, the Painter and the Celebrity Machine

This is the 36th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on June 16.

One of the great delights of Indian newspapers is that they often report seriously news that is insanely, rotfl-ly funny. Take the following news headline: ‘Dhoni Keeps Promise, Adopts a Tiger’. On reading this story, you find that India’s cricket captain, MS Dhoni, has adopted a tiger called Agsthya in the Mysore Zoo. Javagal Srinath persuaded him to do so, and Dhoni isn’t the only early adopter: Zaheer Khan has adopted a leopard, Anil Kumble has adopted a giraffe and Virat Kohli has adopted a rabbit. (Incredibly, I’m making up only the bit about Kohli.) The tiger is 9 years old, so any questions about whether it will be nursed by his wife are out of place here. In any case, young Sakshi Dhoni would no doubt not want her Masaba saris to be peed on by a baby tiger, and I’m safely assuming that young Agsthya Dhoni will remain a resident of Mysore Zoo.

As you would guess, this reminds me of MF Husain. The celebrated painter died last week, and the media has been full of tributes to him. (My friend, the prolific Salil Tripathi, wrote four of them: 1, 2, 3, 4. My fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane also wrote one.) Husain is one of the most recognisable and familiar figures in this country: almost everybody surely knows his name. He was an uber-celebrity, which is ironic for two reasons. One: He was hounded out of the country by goons who believe that goddesses should not be painted naked. (Ludicrously, they believe in goddesses. WTF?) Two: Most of the people to whom he was such a recognisable figure, who would have burst crackers and felt mega-proud if a nobel prize for painting were instituted and given to him, wouldn’t be able to tell you what made him great. They wouldn’t have an opinion on what was notable about his art, and why his paintings are more or less compelling than those by Raza, Souza or Salman Khan. They’d know that he likes to be barefoot because Bombay Times (and Lucknow Times and Kota Times and suchlike) would have mentioned it a few hundred times, and they’d know he liked painting horses and developed crushes on Bollywood actresses from time to time. But that’s it. To them, he’s a celebrity because he’s a celebrity.

It’s a sign of the widespread shallowness of human beings that being celebrated and being a celebrity are two different things. People become celebrities by achieving something, or by being someone’s wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/alleged shag. But once they make it to page 3 a few times, the original reason for their celebrity becomes redundant, and they become ‘famous for being famous’. First they get their 15 minutes of fame for XYZ; then they get a lifetime of fame for being famous for that original 15 minutes, and XYZ no longer matters. Husain the quirky public figure displaces Husain the painter. When he dies, we pretend to be celebrating his work, but we’re really just celebrating his celebrity, which is as much our doing as his. Then we move on to Dhoni’s tiger and Kohli’s rabbit. (I can’t get Kohli’s rabbit out of my mind.)

Why are we so shallow and obsessed with the superficial? One reason, undeniably, is that we are all voyeurs. I watch Bigg Boss religiously when it’s on, and spend as much time on Bombay Times as The Times of India. (This is because ToI is boringly awful and BT is glamorously awful, and I prefer pretty pictures.) Which of us doesn’t clamour for gossip on who is sleeping with who, and who had a wardrobe malfunction resulting in a near nip-slip (as if everybody doesn’t have two nips), or which designer flicked a design from which fellow designer (as if they both haven’t flicked from an old issue of Vogue)? We crave wealth and beauty, and are obsessed by the rich and the beautiful: that is in our genes.

Another possible reason is an evolutionary one, cited by Johann Hari in an old essay on the subject. It is possible, he writes, that “we are hard-wired to seek out Big Men (or Women) and copy them,” an instinct that evolved for our survival and has led to the flourishing of the tabloid media. We are drawn towards success and achievement and beauty; celebrity seems a validation of all these things; so we are drawn towards celebrity, ultimately for its own sake.

This is not necessarily harmful, unless we become stalkers or are stalked by them. But this celebrity thing can be taken too far—consider the temples built for this cricketer or that film star, and the near-religious adulation heaped upon them. This is especially dangerous when they enter politics, extending the halo of their celebrity into a field where you actually need to be competent, and merely being photogenic or charming or controversial or famous isn’t enough. The south has had its share of filmstar-turned-chief ministers, who gather cults, not followings. Their power makes them celebrities, their celebrity gives them more power, and the perpetual motion machine keeps running. This cannot be healthy.

We also make the mistake of assuming that because we are familiar with the public image of a celeb, we are familar with the celeb himself. If a particular cricketer is known for being humble and unassuming, it doesn’t actually mean that he is really that way. His public persona is being mistaken for his personality, which may or may not coincide, and if they do, that is bound to go to his head, so how the hell can he stay humble? Celebrity is tough.

Another mistake we make is assuming that being a celebrity extends your competence in fields other than what you are originally known for. The frequently naive views of celebs are given more importance than they deserve, often in subjects they know nothing about. (For example, Dhoni’s giving a lakh to Mysore Zoo does nothing for animal rights. It is a cosmetic gesture, though I have no doubt it is a well-meaning one, and he’s an awesome cricketer, so Agsthya is now my favourite tiger.) Sometimes, of course, they are sensible, but I am always surprised when that is the case. In general, celebs’ views on politics or economics are staggeringly banal or stupefyingly silly. But then, just as we get the leaders we deserve, perhaps we also get the celebs we deserve.

*  *  *  *

Going back to the news item on Dhoni, I notice his quote about the tiger being our ‘national animal’. WTF is a national animal? Is the concept itself not absurd, like a national bird or national sport or national colour or a national brand of underwear? It’s like an insecure nation reassuring itself with a signalling device. Why isn’t the donkey our national animal? There are more donkeys than tigers in India, surely? Is it because donkeys are vegetarian?

Dhoni should have thought about this and adopted a donkey in protest.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 June, 2011 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | Media | Sport | Viewfinder


The Game of Skill

This is the 34th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on May 12.

I’ve been in Goa for the last ten days or so, grinding out poker tournaments and cash games. There are a bunch of other regulars following a similar routine in a busy month for poker, and all of them would be a bit befuddled by the title of economist Steven Levitt’s newest paper: ‘The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence From the World Series of Poker’. To us, the answer is self-evident, as obvious as a question about whether skill really helps in playing cricket or whether Roger Federer’s achievements are a fluke. Nevertheless, in somewhat harrowed times for poker players, Levitt’s excellent paper, written with Thomas Miles, is hugely welcome.

As of April 15 this year, which the pokerverse refers to as Black Friday, US players were effectively barred from playing online poker at three online sites, including the two biggest in the world, Pokerstars and Full Tilt. This completed a series of actions that began in 2006, when the senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was scrambling furiously to get online poker banned in America. Since a bill to this effect was unlikely to pass on its own merits, he tacked on the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) onto legislation about protecting the ports of the country, and got it through at the fag end of a session before the senate went on recess. The bill didn’t ban online gambling per se, but prohibited the use of US banks and credit cards for depositing money into those sites.

While that hurt online gaming, Americans continued to play poker at sites like Pokerstars and Full Tilt, as the sites presumably used a variety of methods to get around the issue of accepting and giving payments. They were indicted on Black Friday, though, as the legality of some of these methods came into question, and American players have been barred from playing at these sites. This has hugely affected the livelihood of many online grinders, who played poker for a living. Besides that, it is also an infringement on the rights and freedoms of Americans from their own government, which is depressing, considering that in other aspects, like freedom of speech, America sets an example to the rest of the world.

This will get sorted out. Sooner or later it will be legally settled, once and for all, that poker is a game of skill and not luck. The UIGEA will cease to apply to it, and the debate will be moot. Levitt and Miles’s new paper might well play an important part in that. It’s something most Americans understand anyway: poker is a quintessential American game, and it can even be argued that its history would be different without it. Richard Nixon funded his first political campaign through his poker winnings, and Barack Obama, according to David Remnick in The Bridge, used poker sessions with local bigwigs as a networking opportunity during his formative political years in Chicago. (By all accounts, he is tight-aggressive: cautious when it comes to entering a hand but, as his recent play in Abbottabad shows, not afraid of putting all his chips in the middle if he feels the situation demanded it.)

Given the legal status of gambling in India, a US ruling about poker being a game of skill would also help the game grow in India. At the moment, poker tournaments and cash games are legal only in the offshore casinos in Goa. An underground scene thrives in every city—and that’s understating it—but it’s all a bit precarious. Once it is as legal as, say, Bridge, I predict a poker explosion in India that will make it, within five years, the second most popular sport in India, after cricket. You’ll have the whole gamut of entertainment options: televised tournaments, high stakes cash games with hole cameras, poker celebrities as instantly recognisable as Gautam Gambhir. All stoked by the illusion that we all get the same cards, and any of us could be up there in the spotlight. It will happen; remember that you read it here first.

*  *  *  *

I’ve written in the past about why poker is a game of skill, so rather than go over old territory, let me direct you to some old Viewfinder columns on this subject:

The Beautiful Game of Poker
Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea
Poker and the Human Brain

You can also check out my bi-monthly column for Cardplayer India, Pocket Quads.

*  *  *  *

At one level, the argument about whether poker is a game of skill or not should be irrelevent in a legal sense, because it is my contention that even games of chance should not be banned. There are two reasons for this: One, as I’ve argued before, practically everything we do in our lives, from investing in the stock market, selecting a job or choosing a spouse is a gamble of some sort, in the sense that we make an estimate of the odds of our investment leading to a good return, and act accordingly. In many of these matters, we are sometimes too optimistic—but that’s life.

The second reason is more fundamental. What I do with my time and money is my business alone, as long as I do not infringe on anyone’s rights. This right of mine, over my life and my property, is something that the government is supposed to protect. For it to actually curtail and infringe these rights defeats the purpose of government itself. Governments exist to serve us, not the other way around. And yet, we the rulers allow ourselves to become the ruled. On a matter or principle, thus, all laws against gambling are wrong.

That said, from a poker player’s perspective, proving that it is a game of skill is lower-hanging fruit. Let’s get there first.

*  *  *  *

Since we’re talking poker, I’ll end by telling you about a sick call I made the other day. I’m at the button in a five-handed game, with the blinds at 100-200, and stacks ranging from 30k to 100k. It’s five in the morning, and the game has become very loose and aggressive. Everyone limps to me, and I look down at red pocket 8s. I raise to 1000, and everyone calls. The small blind, who has been very frisky and seems to be tilting, announces “check in dark.”

The flop is Ac2sAc. (Two aces, two clubs.) I’m ready to give up the hand if someone bets, as one of the callers could easily have an ace, but the action checks to me, and I choose not to build the pot by betting: I check. Before the turn opens, the frisky small blind announces, “Bet in dark. Four thousand.” (Into a pot of five.) The turn is the king of clubs; there are now three clubs on the board. I’m ready to fold if someone calls or raises him, but the action folds to me. My read is that he does not have an ace, which he is trying to represent, because from what I know of him, he wouldn’t play it like this. I call.

The river is the ten of clubs. There are four clubs on the board, and also two aces, one king and one ten. Any of them beat me. Frisky boy bets 16 thousand into a pot of 13. You’d think this is where I fold, but wait, not so fast. I tank, and think through what he might have. His range, in my view, is very polarised. Either he has the nuts or he has nothing. I can’t see him betting a random club here because he has showdown value. Ditto a king or a ten. He wouldn’t bet trips here because there’s a flush on the board. He wouldn’t bet a flush because there’s a repeat ace on the board, my preflop raising range has many hands with an ace in it, I did call his turn bet, and I’m capable of slowplaying a full house. In my estimate, either he has some sort of full house, and is overbetting the pot to get value from a flush, in case I have one, or he has nothing.

I talk to him. He talks back, smiles sheepishly. The physical tells I’m getting are of weakness, so I call. He mucks his hand, and I take down the pot with two red eights on a board with four clubs, two aces and two other overcards. I don’t show emotion much at a poker table, but I’m overjoyed at my analysis and my reads turning out to be right, and I punch the air. “Come to Papa,” I exclaim. Poker is a game of luck, you say? My ass it is.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Sport | Viewfinder


The Godman’s Blessing and the Sportsman’s Curse

This is the 33rd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on April 28.

Exhibit A is an international sportsman at the very peak of his career. Exhibit B is a middle-class man who’s been dealt a series of cruel blows, and is beginning to feel that life is not worth living. The sportsman attracts multi-million-dollar endorsements and makes it to the cover of several magazines, including the one he most covets, Sports Illustrated. The middle-class man considers slashing his wrists, but has too many responsibilities to give up so easily. So he makes a journey to an acclaimed godman, whose blessings alone have been known to turn lives around. Sure enough, things take a turn for the better. Meanwhile, the sportsman’s career starts going downhill.

What do these two stories have in common? Plenty. They are, in a statistical sense, the same story. Let me explain.

The sportsman is a victim of The Sports Illustrated Jinx. This is an urban legend based on the observation that a disproportionate number of individuals and teams who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated subsequently experience a downswing in their careers. Appearing on the cover of that prestigious magazine, it would seem, jinxes you.

There is a simple explanation for the apparent jinx, though. Sportspeople’s careers go through peaks and troughs, with periods of immense success followed by periods of baffling failure. After each peak or trough, there is regression to the mean. They are most likely to be featured on the cover of SI when they are at their peak. A downswing after that is natural. (For someone like Michael Jordan, who was on the cover 49 times, the mean might itself be extraordinary enough for such a regression to make no apparent difference.) And when their performance dips to their normal levels, we mistake correlation for causation, and attribute it to their appearing on the SI cover. But it isn’t a jinx at all.

The godman’s blessing is a similar phenomenon, viewed from the other side. People tend to turn to God and godmen when they are at their lowest ebb. Let’s say the godman blesses them, or gives them vibhuti, or suchlike. Then their lives regress to the mean, their run of bad luck ends, and whoa, they’re devotees for life. Indeed, since they were inclined to be believers to begin with, they are likely to attribute any swing in fortunes to God or the godman, and ignore further downswings as part of their general bad luck. (This is the confirmation bias kicking in.) Or even, if they’re really thick, to karma.

Thus, the belief of many people in godmen and new age gurus is based on false foundations. If they understood the role of luck in our lives, and the randomness of the universe, they would be less inclined to look to divine forces (or charlatans claiming divinity) for answers to their problems. A godman’s blessing should never be more than a source of amusement to you—and if he gives you sacred ash, remember to wash your hands before your next meal.

*  *  *  *

That said, I am not mocking belief. The fundamental truth about human beings is that of our mortality. One day we will die, and that’s it. This is a difficult truth to come to terms with, for it carries at its heart

a message about our utter insignificance, and natural selection has programmed us to regard ourselves fairly highly. (For obvious reasons—otherwise why would we enthusiastically procreate instead of generally moping around?)

For this reason, we tend to seek comfort over truth. Religion and superstition and spirituality give us comfort. Given how harsh life can be, I’m not going to stand around passing judgment over religious people. I understand why they believe—even if what they believe in is mostly utterly ludicrous.

*  *  *  *

And yes, I’m somewhat baffled by the the number of devout followers the late Sathya Sai Baba seemed to have had. It’s one thing to believe in God, and quite another to believe in a man who called himself divine, and would prove this not with miracles of any value, but through cheap conjurer’s tricks that any average stage magician could have pulled off. (There are many YouTube videos about them; check out this one.) There have also been hazaar unsavoury controversies around the man; read Vir Sanghvi’s take on him, as well as

Vishal Arora’s superb feature for Caravan. And yet, presidents and prime ministers have gone to take his blessings, and top sportsmen broke down at his funeral. All this, I suspect, illustrated their frailty more than his divinity. But we are all frail, and deal with it in different ways, so who am I to judge?

*  *  *  *

Also read: An old personal essay by me,

“What’s Consolation For an Atheist?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Astrology etc | Sport | Viewfinder


Planning For 2015

Kumar Sangakkara, in a statement released to announce his stepping down from the Sri Lankan captaincy, has said:

I would like to announce that after careful consideration I have concluded that it is in the best long-term interests of the team that I step down now as national captain so that a new leader can be properly groomed for the 2015 World Cup in Australia. [...] I will be 37 by the next World Cup and I cannot therefore be sure of my place in the team. It is better that Sri Lanka is led now by a player who will be at the peak of their career during that tournament.

The thought seems noble, but I’m struck by two things here:

1] The implication that the World Cup is the biggest thing there is in cricket, the only aim of any cricketing nation, and takes precedence over all other cricketing goals.

2] The notion that it takes four full years to groom a captain. If Sangakkara was to give up the captaincy in, say, 2013, wouldn’t two years be enough? Why not? What’s the optimum time a new captain would need to build his team or himself become comfortable in the job?

I can understand that the poor chap must be fatigued: the captaincy of any international cricket side must be immensely draining. That would surely be a good enough reason to state for quitting—though this certainly seems more statesmanlike.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2011 in Sport


Monkeys Using Calculators

My buddy Deepak Shenoy has a Yahoo! column up today that expresses a complaint I’ve had about many Indian sports journalists for a while now: they are innumerate, and draw conclusions on the basis of inadequate data. The example Deepak provides is the following fact, trumped “on Twitter, TV and ... the internet when Mahela Jayawardene scored his hundred” in the World Cup final, as if it had great statistical or predictive significance:

“No century-scorer has ever been on the losing side of a World Cup final.”

As Deepak points out, there have been only five World Cup finals before this in which a batsman scored a century. Just five. There is no way that is a sample size large enough to draw a meaningful conclusion from.

Cricket journalism is littered with such conclusions, though, using stats with unjustifiable authority. Consider the following widespread belief among cricket lovers:

South Africa are chokers.

I heard this a lot after they crashed out of this World Cup, but what’s the basis for this, really? Cricinfo’s Statsguru reveals that out of 27 ODI tournament finals, they have won 16. On the bigger stage, though, at the World Cup, they have lost at the knock-out stage five times.

Now, much as 0 out of 5 seems revealing, that’s still way too small a sample size to draw conclusions—especially when those five times stretch across generations. When we say South Africa are chokers, are we talking about Kepler Wessels’s squad in 1992, Hansie Cronje’s side in 1999, or Graeme Smith’s boys this year? Is there a new science of Sports Genetics that explains how such qualities can be passed on across generations?

Through the World Cup, reporters fed old narratives or built new ones on the basis of such nonsense data. For example, MS Dhoni got savaged for promoting Yusuf Pathan up the batting order, where it seems he was a proven failure—on the basis of 11 ODIs (out of a total of 51), in which he batted between 3 and 5. More importantly, Pathan batted at 3 or 4 in just two games in this World Cup, and failed in both—but two is not a remotely meaningful number.

In such cases, I’d always defer to the captain and team management’s judgement, who are closer to the action and the players, rather than the ranting of reporters who couldn’t tell the difference between an arm-ball and a doosra, but feel the need to criticize from their perch on high, using numbers with all the finesse of monkeys using calculators.

*

The judgments the media arrives at, you will note, are passed in hindsight, after the outcome is known. MS Dhoni got applause for leading us to the T20 World Cup, but would have been slammed for his decision to bring on Joginder Sharma for that last over in the final had Misbah-ul-Haq played one shot slightly differently. All our experts criticized him for picking Ashish Nehra over R Ashwin in the recent semi-final, and praised him afterwards for his prescience. Had Dhoni gotten a bad decision or an unplayable ball in the final, and India had lost, he would have been chastised for promoting himself up the order—but we won, so hey, it’s a masterstroke.

One of the lessons I’ve learnt as a poker player—and it applies generally to life as well—is that the quality of your decisions should not be judged by their outcomes. In the short term, too many variables determine the outcome of any action, beyond just the action itself. The quality of a player’s captaincy, for example, can only be judged over a long period of time—and even then, the other variables at play make that very difficult. For example, the question of whether Dhoni or Saurav Ganguly were greater captains than Tiger Pataudi or Sunil Gavaskar are difficult ones precisely because the latter two led lousy teams in difficult times, and they couldn’t possibly have gotten the results Dhoni and Ganguly (and also Dravid, for that matter) did. So our evaluation of their captaincy cannot be based on results alone, and there is a subjective element to it.

In my subjective opinion, Dhoni is the best captain we’ve ever had—but my basis for this opinion is not just his results, but the manner in which he goes about his job. He had the cojones to promote himself up the order in the final and take the responsibility upon himself in that ultra-high-pressure situation. Even if he’d been out for a duck, and India had lost, he’d still have my eternal respect for that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2011 in India | Journalism | Media | Sport


Euphemism of the Day

“Private therapeutic performance with a psychologist’s presence.”

If Poonam Pandey does manage to ‘perform’ for the Indian World Cup squad, imagine how pissed Praveen Kumar and Rohit Sharma will be.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2011 in News | Sport | WTF


Overstepping the Line

This is the 19th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on September 2.

If you’re a cricket lover, the last week hasn’t been a good one. You can scarcely say, though, that you had no inkling. We’ve been through a matchfixing scandal before; some of the culprits got off easy that time, especially in Pakistan; much shadiness has surrounded Pakistan cricket for quite a while now. The incentives have been all wrong, and human nature is human nature. And the cat had grown too big for the bag.

What is tragic about last week’s events, though, is that they involve a boy. Mohammad Amir is 18. He was marked out for future greatness at 15. He was playing international cricket at 17—remember what you were up to at that age, and how callow you were. Amir must have been in awe of his senior team-mates, and of this new dreamlike world he was catapulted into.

It has been argued that the authorities should treat him leniently because of this, and because of his sublime talent. Ramiz Raja has said, “He is 18, with an impressionable mind, and if he has been keeping bad company, it’s possible he could have been drawn [into wrongdoing].” Geoff Lawson, his former coach, has this to say, “The first time I met Mohammad Amir was when he was 16, coming to an Under-19s camp. He comes from a small village near the Swat valley and was delayed by three hours because the Taliban had closed the highway. That doesn’t happen in this country. [...] I will never condone any form of fixing, but we should consider that a cricketer might not be thinking of personal gain but of getting money to buy a generator for his village because they don’t have electricity.”

I share the sympathy for the boy—but his punishment, if indeed it is confirmed that he is guilty, should be based not on what is good for Amir, but on what is good for the game. Cricket has had enough of match-fixing, and to recover and maintain the sanctity of the sport, the ICC (and the PCB) must make sure that they set the right incentives. A past generation of cricketers got away easily with their wrongdoings. We can set it right now. A life ban for every player even peripherally involved with these happenings will send a message that even a 12-year-old won’t be able to ignore in future. It might then be clear that the risks of match-fixing outweigh the rewards. As Sambit Bal wrote on Cricinfo, “Mohammad Amir must either stand tall or never bowl a ball again. Nothing in between is acceptable.”

*  *  *  *

While it easy to condemn Amir’s actions, it is harder to stand on judgement on the boy himself. Given his humble background, his impressionable age and his questionable team-mates, he was doomed as soon as he stepped out on the field in Pakistan colours. Cricket, some purists say, builds character—but in such circumstances, how could Amir have found nobility or rectitude? Amir’s talent is magical, but we do not live in a fairy-tale world, and the boy is human.

And really, which of us can afford to be self-righteous about this. There is not one adult person in this subcontinent who has not, at some time or another, partaken in an act of corruption. Perhaps we’ve bribed a traffic cop, or given chai-paani to our local electricity guy, or slipped a hundred buck note to a low-level mandarin while getting our first ration card in a new city. Some of us might have misused the privileges available to us at our workplace, convincing ourselves that the infraction was so trivial that it did not matter in the larger scheme of things—just as a couple of no-balls here and there might have seemed to Amir when he first started down this road.

I’m not justifying Amir’s actions—if it is confirmed he is guilty, that should be the end of his playing career. I’m just saying that some of the moralising and self-righteousness seems excessive to me. As a species, we are petty and prone to jealousy and resentment, and we love it when the mighty fall—witness the delighted collective schadenfreude around Tiger Woods’s recent misfortunes, much of it from men whose loins ache when they think of Woods’s adventures. I see shades of that in much of the moralising around me.

*  *  *  *

And then, of course, there is the lament of the true cricket fan, robbed of his innocence yet again. (Like, what suckers we must be for that to happen again and again?) This is beautifully expressed by Prem Panicker, also Yahoo! India’s managing editor, in a post on his blog, ‘We know it’s so, Joe.’ Such it goes.

*  *  *  *

Let me also direct you to ‘No Cure for Corruption’, Yahoo! columnist Mohit Satyanand’s superb take on governmental corruption in India. I agree with his bleak prognosis. Corruption in India is deep-rooted, and almost impossible to eradicate. The problem here isn’t with a few crooked individuals, but with the system itself. To put it simply, corruption in government is a consequence of two things: One, government has more power over the common man than it should, and we know that power corrupts; Two, there is not enough accountability in an opaque system of government.

If the government gets out of those areas of our lives which it has no business controlling, the scope for corruption is reduced. An example of this is the telecom sector—once it was impossible to get a telephone connection installed without bribing a low-level MTNL operative, but after the sector was opened up to competition, well, who needs MTNL? Sadly, like a tentacular Cthulhu-like entity, the government still controls too many areas of our lives, and duly takes hafta.

Besides reducing the role of government to what is essential—law and order and suchlike—we could also make it more accountable by making it more local. The more decentralised government becomes, the closer the common man gets to actually having some influence on those who are supposed to be his servants. More accountability, more transparency, less corruption.

But again, if smaller government and decentralised governance are keys to reducing corruption, who are the only people in a position to make it happen? The people within the existing system, that’s who. And which way are their incentives aligned?

It’s an endless over of no-balls, that’s what it is.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 September, 2010 in Sport | Viewfinder


Poker and the Human Brain

This is the 16th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on August 12.

I spend as much time playing poker these days as I once would spend reading and writing, and my friends sometimes ask me in jest what literature and poker have in common. My reply is that both provide an understanding of human nature. I am not being facetious.

Ever since I started playing poker seriously, I’ve held the view that poker reveals the way our brain is wired. For example, if we carry a list of cognitive biases with us to a poker session, and tick off the ones we witness in action, we’d probably run through the entire list by the end of the evening. If we’re aware of this, we can exploit these missteps in others—and avoid them in our own play.

In writing this article, I run the risk of revealing to my regular opponents a few of the tricks of my trade. But for the greater good of humanity, I shall lay those considerations aside. Here, then, are a few of the cognitive biases that come into play on a poker table.

1. The Sunk-Cost Fallacy. Suppose you are in office one day, and there is much buzz about a new Japanese restaurant that has opened round the corner. “Let’s go there for lunch,” you suggest. All your regular cronies concur, except one girl who says, “I so want to come, but I’ve got lunch from home, and it will be wasted.” That is her only reason for not coming. She doesn’t want the packed lunch, and would vastly prefer some unagi, but the Sunk Cost Fallacy comes in the way.

The logical way of thinking about this is that the packed lunch is a sunk cost—and that if she would otherwise prefer to come to the new Japanese restaurant, then she should ignore that sunk cost and come anyway. This is the same mistake many stock market investors make. They will buy a stock for, say, Rs 70. It will slip to Rs 60. Its downward momentum will make it logical to sell the stock, but they will reason that they have already lost Rs 10 on it, and will keep the stock in the hope of recovering that money somehow.

Poker players make the same error by throwing in good money after bad. Let us say that you have pocket aces. You raise pre-flop, a loose player calls, and the flop comes AQJ with two hearts. (You have none.) You have a set, but slow-playing is dangerous because of the flush and straight possibilities out there, so you make a pot-sized bet. Your opponent calls. The turn is a ten of hearts. You make a bet two-thirds the size of the pot, and your opponent raises three times that. For any good player, unless you have a read that the opponent is weak, this is an auto-fold. There are four cards to a straight out there, three to a flush, and if your opponent has one of those, you have exactly ten outs to a full house or quads, and the odds don’t justify continuing. But you say, “I have already spent so much money on this pot. All that will be wasted. I can’t leave now.”

Good poker players know that the money already in the pot no longer belongs to you, and that at every street you must make new evaluations about how to proceed. But we are human, we have put money in the pot, and it’s so hard to let it go. Isn’t it?

Also see: Escalation of Commitment.

2. The Endowment Effect. The above poker example also illustrates the Endowment Effect, which Wikipedia describes as “a hypothesis that people value a good or service more once their property right to it has been established.” It’s been much written about recently in a slew of books about behavioural economics, and is a bias we often see in poker when a player ‘falls in love with his hand.’ In the above example, if you are a spectator watching the hand, it is obvious that the set of aces should be folded. In the middle of the action, though, you ascribe more value to the hand than you would if some other player held it because it’s your hand, and it’s so hard to let it go. Almost all regular players have faced a situation where they play AK, flop top pair-top kicker, but their bet on the flop encounters a big raise (or even an all-in) from a solid player who doesn’t make crazy moves. Seen from the outside, it’s time to consider folding, because he could have a set or two pair, but if you’re the guy holding AK, it’s so much harder to make that dispassionate decision.

When I started playing poker, I’d refer to this as the Starting Hand Bias. Weak players who hold JJ will often be reluctant to fold to a bet following a flop that has two overcards, and players who have AK or AQs will find it hard to give it away when they don’t connect on the flop. It takes discipline to overcome this bias and throw the hand away.

3. The Normalcy Bias. Wikipedia defines this as “an extreme mental state” that “causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster occurring and its possible effects.” This is related to the Availability Heuristic, “a phenomenon in which people predict the frequency of an event, or a proportion within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind.”

Two examples come to mind from my own play, against the same opponent. In one case, there were four cards to a flush on the board, with no repeat cards, and I had the ace of that suit—in other words, the nut flush. But the four cards were connected with a gap in between, and there was the small chance that my opponent had the one card that made her a straight flush that beat my hand. I raised, she insta-reraised, and my read was that she was very strong. But I thought, “Nah, straight flushes are so rare, she can’t possibly have one.” I did refrain from re-reraising all-in, though, and merely called, to be shown the only hand that could beat mine.

In another hand, I had a full house and was reraised on the river. The only hand that could be beat me was quads, and my opponent, who is not difficult to read, showed immense strength. Quads are so rare, though, that I ignored my read and called. You guessed it: Black Swan event.

We see the same phenomenon when a player flops a low flush, and is quite happy to reraise all-in, assuming that his hand is surely the best hand, because hey, he can’t remember the last time two players flopped a flush. That’s exactly the kind of hand that busts players out of tournaments.

4. The Recency Effect. This can be defined as “the tendency to weigh recent events more than earlier events.” Wikipedia gives an example: “If a driver sees an equal total number of red cars as blue cars during a long journey, but there happens to be a glut of red cars at the end of the journey, they are likely to conclude there were more red cars than blue cars throughout the drive.”

In poker, this can lead us astray against loose opponents. Let us say that in the last half an hour of a session, you have seen a player raising with KQo, QTo, 79s, A6s and even 58o, all marginal (some outright dubious) hands, especially from early or middle position. So you’re in a hand where he’s raised from early position, and you have AJs. You reraise, he calls. The flop is A23 rainbow. He checks, you bet the pot, he reraises by three times, a move that recent evidence indicates he is capable of making with nothing. What do you do?

I’ve gone all-in a similar situation, only to be shown AK. I had fallen prey to the Recency Effect. I’d made a move based on his recent play, quite ignoring that even loose players get good cards, and that my hand, because of the jack kicker, was not quite a monster.

This is a bias that good players can exploit successfully by changing gear in the middle of a session. Play loose for a while, then suddenly go tight, and you will get paid off on premium hands. Play tight for a bit, and then make a bluff, and your opponents will give you more credit than is due and fold.

Also see: The Primacy Effect, “the tendency to weigh initial events more than subsequent events”. You often see sharks exploit this by starting a session with some loose play, for advertising effect, so they get paid off on their premium hands later by players overvaluing marginal holdings. In other words, these sharks behave like fish at the start of a session, and later go chomp chomp chomp.

5. The Confirmation Bias. This is the tendency to ignore all information that contradicts our preconceptions, and to treat all other information as evidence. People who believe in astrology, for example, will remember all the instances when an astrologer’s predictions came true, and ignore all the times they did not. Ditto homeopathy, and suchlike.

I see this all the time with poker players. I know players, for example, who love to play hands like 58o and 63, and will call big preflop raises with them. They have stories about how they once flopped a straight with 63, beating two opponents who had AA and QQ, and so on. Another player I know has a goofy theory that if two or three players have shown strength with preflop raises and reraises, and he has two low cards, he should call because the other all surely have high cards, so there is a greater probability of low cards hitting the board. (Go figure.)

Players with beliefs like this remember the handful of times such play works for them, and ignore all the other times when it doesn’t. If you play a hand like 85o, you will flop two pair or better approximately one in 34 hands. The rest of the time, you are basically losing money. Weak players remember the one time they hit—not the 33 times they don’t.

Also see: The Semmelweis Reflex.

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This is a subject on which I could go on and on: there’s no end to the cognitive biases one sees at a poker table, from Loss Aversion to the Choice-Supportive Bias to the Ostrich Effect to the Belief Bias and obvious ones like the Optimism Bias, the Over-Confidence Effect and the Neglect-of-Probability Bias (duh). Check out this list of cognitive biases at Wikipedia: if you are a poker player, you will surely recognise many of them.

For a while now, I’ve been mulling over the idea of writing a book about how the game of poker reveals how the human brain is wired—so this may not be the last you hear from me on this subject.

*  *  *  *

Previous articles on poker:

The Beautiful Game of Poker

Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea

*  *  *  *

Previously on Viewfinder

Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea

The Big Deal About Blogging

The Oddly Enough Species

The Beautiful Game of Poker

Beauty and the Art of Winning

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 August, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Sport | Viewfinder


Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea

This is the 15th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on August 5.

“I don’t play poker.” The protagonist of “The Crack of Doom”, a wonderful installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from 1956, says these words to a friend near the start of the film. As it proceeds, we find out why. When he was younger, his life was shaken up by the game. He got some bad beats at a poker session, lost his buy-in, and, his ego hurt, decided to buy back into the game and recover his losses. But it was night, his bank was shut,  so he took four thousand dollars out of a ten-thousand dollar stack that had been given to him for official purposes. In case he lost it, he intended to pay it back the next morning by dipping into his savings account, where he had nine thousand dollars. Well, he lost it. So he went home, looked into his passbook, and found that his wife had withdrawn all their savings. He woke her up to ask her what had happened to it, and she tearfully confessed that she had blown it up in the stock market. (A more foolish option than investing in poker, if you ask me.) Our man was devastated. He faced humiliation and possibly jail for his behaviour. He was, effectively, a thief. He was doomed. Unless…

You got it. He went back to his office, took the remaining six thousand dollars and went back to the poker game, where he found himself, as the title suggests, on the crack of doom. I shall give no more away, you have to watch it for yourself. (The film is online in two parts, you can see it here: 1, 2.)

The form of poker they were playing in the film was five-card stud, which is rarely played these days: Texas hold ‘em is the most popular form. But apart from that, if you adjust for inflation, the film seems like it was made yesterday. Every regular poker player will find echoes of himself in the film: the compulsive need to get back to the table, the belief that a good run is just around the corner, the despondency on our hero’s face as he loses, and loses, and loses. We’ve all had sessions like that.

I’ve written in an earlier piece—‘The Beautiful Game of Poker’—about how poker is essentially a game of skill. The skill comes in being a winner in the long run, but in the short run, luck plays its part. People chase gutshot draws at a cost that is not justified by the pot odds and catch it on the river, 82 suited kicks the ass of AA after a pre-flop all-in is followed by a flush on the flop, a flopped straight is beaten by a runner-runner full house, bad beats pile up on bad beats. The thrill of being part of this action is similar to any other casino game where there is no skill involved and the odds are against you—roulette, for example.

Many poker players, such as me, disdain most other casino and card games—we treat poker as both a science (of mathematical probability and expectation) and an art (of reading people and navigating the shores of human behaviour), and certainly not as pure gambling. Not all poker players are like that.  I play poker regularly in Mumbai and Goa, with different groups of people, and many of my poker buddies are in it for the thrill of gambling. They know the numbers, they understand the skill aspect of the game, but they don’t come to the tables because they value the intellectual and sporting challenge, but because they need their fix. They’re addicted.

In his recent book, What’s Luck Got to do With it?, Joseph Mazur speaks about how “recent research, using PET scans, suggests that pathological gamblers, alcoholics, and drug addicts have similar patterns of neural activity when exposed to their individual addictions. [...] PET scans of pathological gamblers show increased levels of dopamine during play and even more substantial increases during high-risk, high-stakes playing.” Such gamblers find it hard to stay away from the tables; they focus on their winning sessions and ignore their losses entirely; and they have weird notions of the lady we spend our lives wooing: Luck.

There are two fallacies in particular that help gamblers rationalise their behaviour. One is the Monte Carlo Fallacy, also known as the Gambler’s Fallacy, or the “law of averages.” As this post on the subject defines it, this is “the belief that the likelihood of a random event is influenced and/or predicted by other independent events.” For example, a roulette wheel comes up black five successive times, so you decide to bet on red because red “is due.” Or you flip an evenly weighted coin eight times and it lands on tails each time, so you figure that it surely must land on heads the next time it’s flipped. (The probability remains 50%; coins don’t have memories.) Compulsive gamblers fall prey to this fallacy all the time, telling themselves that their luck has been so rotten that things will surely change now, and that a good session is due. Of course, if they’re playing roulette or any of the casino games where the house has an edge, or if they’re playing poker without regard to its mathematical aspect, they are bound to lose in the long run, irrespective of the winning sessions that are inevitable (like a coin landing on heads five times in a row if you flip it long enough), and that they’ll selectively remember to justify their continued gambling.

The other fallacy is the Hot Hands Fallacy. This is the reverse of the Gambler’s Fallacy; in Mazur’s words, it is the tendency to “expect long runs of the same outcome to continue.” For example, if an evenly-weighted coin lands on tails eight times in a row, you expect it to land on tails the ninth time as well. If you flip a coin long enough, there will be successive streaks of the both tails and heads coming up too many times in a row for it to seem random, even though it is exactly that. Mazur writes, paraphrasing Amos Tversky, “People reject randomness and the mathematical expected number of runs because the appearance of long runs in short samples seems too purposeful to be random.”

I see this all the time in my poker sessions. Often, a losing player will get up from the table and say something like, “Yaar, aaj mere patte hit nahin ho rahe. Better not play any more today.” Or if he’s winning, “Today is my lucky day. I can feel it. And I have a good feeling about these cards.” And then he plays 85o and flops a straight, reinforcing his belief that luck is on his side. (If the flop is AKK, he folds and forgets that he had a ‘feeling’.) In Goa a couple of months ago, I sat at a cash table where a loaded gambler repeatedly called down a young man’s raises with shit cards, all the time saying things like “I shouldn’t play these cards, but I’m only playing them because you’re in the hand. My luck is running well against you.” He kept sucking out in outrageous fashion, and the youngster, a Ranbir Kapoor lookalike with curly hair, was sucked out of three or four buy-ins and went away shattered, his poor girlfriend in tow, unable to hang it out for the long term in which the fish’s ass would certainly have a hook through it.

In most facets of life, an irrational belief in luck is harmless. When it comes to gambling, though, it can cost serious money, and destroy lives. Mazur quotes an old Arab proverb in his book: “Throw a lucky man into the sea and he will come out with a fish in his mouth.” The truth, especially when it comes to poker, is that if you throw a gambler into the sea, he will be eaten by sharks.

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Just as we seek patterns where there are none on a roulette wheel or a poker table, we construct those narratives in life as well. The world is maddeningly complex, unfathomable and tragic. (Why tragic? Well, we all die and that’s that: there is no greater meaning or purpose behind the randomness of nature that created us.) To comprehend it, we try to fit everything into patterns, and build narratives that help us make sense of it. Some of these narratives happen to be true; many, when the truth is beyond us, are not. Religion is an example of this—but even though religion is irrational, it is perhaps necessary for a weak species like ours, which makes it rational to be irrational for many of us. But I’ll write about that some other day.

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Previously on Viewfinder

The Big Deal About Blogging

The Oddly Enough Species

The Beautiful Game of Poker

Beauty and the Art of Winning

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 August, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Sport | Viewfinder


Anticipating Schadenfreude

At least the guy is being honest. Where do you get that in Politics?

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 July, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Sport | WTF


‘A Janitor Swept a Plastic Cup into His Trash-Can’

You want to know heartbreaking? This is heartbreaking.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 July, 2010 in Sport


The Beautiful Game of Poker

This is the 12th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on July 15.

The essence of sport is not triumph but tragedy. Every year, 128 men take part in the Wimbledon Men’s Singles, and 127 end their journey gutted, trying to smile while their insides are churning. For most of the 219 men racing the Tour de France this year, there will be more heartbreak than glory, and much pain along the way. Sport is not just the Spanish celebration of the recent World Cup, but Asamoah Gyan holding his head in his hands—not just after one missed penalty, but for the rest of his blighted life.

In poker, that tragedy is about the bubble. While most sports fans are detoxing from the football or following cycling or cricket or golf, a bunch of us have our eyes trained, through the lens of internet updates, on the main event of the World Series of Poker—the de facto World Championship. 7319 players entered this year, and 747 people were in the money. (747th prize is US$19,263—the winner will take home US$8.9 million.) The player who comes 748th is considered to be the ‘bubble boy’—or ‘in the bubble’.

Two hands of sporting tragedy. First, Angel Guillen, with all-powerful pocket aces in the hole, shoved all his chips in the middle, and was called by pocket jacks. Guillen had an 81% chance of winning the hand and surviving. The 19% held up, a jack came on the flop, and a dream was over. Guillen was 749th out of 7319 people, and had been busted with the best hand. In a parallel universe, the dealer did one final shuffle of the deck, Guillen got 27 offsuit, folded the damn thing and survived.

And then there was Tim McDonald, who went all in with pocket queens against A2 suited—at 68% to win. But life is cruel. When the hand was done, Pokerstars reveals, McDonald “stood there like the loneliest man at a bachelor auction.” Let me tell you something: there isn’t a poker player in the world who doesn’t know that feeling.

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Poker is an amazing game. It astonishes me sometimes that it is considered by some people to be a form of gambling. Friends of mine who play both bridge and poker often assert that poker requires more skill. Indeed, as a former chess player, I find it a far more demanding sport to master. In chess, all the action is on the chess board in front of you, and there is an objectively correct move for most complex positions. In poker, you’re not just playing the cards on the table, but also the players around you. Every situation is unique and filled with imponderables, and it is often impossible to ascertain the right move at the time.

The most popular form of poker is Texas Hold ‘Em, and in a nutshell, here’s what it’s about. Each player is given two cards face down at the start of the hand. After this, five community cards are dealt, in groups of three (the flop), one (the turn) and one more (the river). Of these seven cards—the five everyone shares on the board and the two in his hand—each player has to make a five-card hand. (Here’s the hierarchy of hands.) The best hand wins. There are four rounds of betting—after the hole cards are dealt, at the flop, at the turn and at the river—and, sometimes, a showdown at the end.

At its most basic level, the game demands maths. Say I am dealt AJ, both spades, a fairly strong hand. I raise, an opponent calls, and we see the flop. It comes 72K, with the 7 and the 2 being spades. My opponent, who has a short stack, goes all in. My sense of the situation is that he has a king in his hand, probably AK, and therefore the best hand at the moment. There are nine spades left in the deck that give me this flush: thus, I have an 18% chance of completing my flush on the turn, and a 36% chance of completing it by the river. Because my opponent is all in, there will be no further bets, so 36% is the key figure here.

Now, whether or not I should call the bet depends on what is known as pot odds. Assume there are 1000 bucks already in the pot, and my opponent’s all-in bet amounts to 800 bucks more. That means that to enter a pot of 1800 bucks, I need to pay 800—or odds of just over 2 to 1. As my odds of hitting the flush are 2 to 1, slightly better than the pot odds, I should make the call. However, had his bet amounted to 2000 more, that would have meant investing 2000 to enter a pot of 3000, at odds of 1.5 to 1. My chances of ending up with the best hand would have been worse than that, thus mandating an automatic fold.

Every decent poker player develops an intuitive sense of pot odds, so we don’t even need to calculate them. If a poker player consistently gets his money in the middle when the pot odds are in his favour, he will make money in the long run. In the short run, he will suffer what poker players call bad beats, losing hands he is the favourite to win. Indeed, he may get all his money in the pot six times in a row when he is 70% favourite to win and lose each time. Such swings happen. But as long as he plays with a small percentage of his total bankroll (look up ‘bankroll management’), he can tackle these swings (look up ‘variance’) and come up a winner. Chris Ferguson, the former world champion, described the role of luck in poker thus: “On any one given hand, it might be 99% luck and 1% skill. Over the course of a tournament, it might be 30% skill and 70% luck. Over the course of a month, maybe it’s 30% luck and 70% skill, and over the course of a year maybe it’s 90% skill and 10% luck.”

But the maths is just one part of playing the game. It is a hygiene factor, something every good player must master, just as every batsman needs to learn how to keep his elbow straight while straight driving. But maths involves just the cards on the table, while every competent poker player will tell you that in this game, you play the people, not the cards. You need to be able to deduce, from betting patterns and physical behaviour, what kind of cards your fellow players are playing with, what cards they think you have, what cards they think you think they have, and so on. At that level, the cards you have often don’t matter—if you can get into the other guy’s head better than he can in yours, you win. As a recent Economist report revealed, a 2009 study analysed 103 million hands played at pokerstars.com and found that more than 75% of them never even reached showdown. So much for the cards.

While this incredible sport has become hugely popular in the US and Europe—the Economist piece I linked to earlier has more—it is just beginning to boom in India. Sadly, the gambling laws in the country make playing poker for money effectively illegal in India, which is why tournaments here have to be organised on one of the two offshore casinos in Goa. (I came fifth in one of them a few weeks ago, and am headed to another one tomorrow.) I have two issues with this: One, despite the short-term element of luck, poker is not gambling in the traditional sense of the word, but a game of skill. Two, in any case, gambling should be legalised. Even if you do not grant me the second point, the first should be indisputable to anyone who’s played the game.

*  *  *  *  *

I can’t end an article on poker without a bad beat story now, can I? Yesterday, my run of 12 consecutive winning sessions came to an end when I received one bad beat after another in a session with friends. The worst moment: I had AQ suited, and the flop came 7J2 rainbow (different suits, so flushes ruled out.) The turn came Q. In my estimation, from previous betting and the expression on my opponent’s face, he had a lower pair—probably the 7. So, confident that my top pair was the best hand at the moment, and that he would call any bet because he was playing that way, I went all in. He called and showed K7 offsuit—my read was correct, and the math was on my side: my opponent had an 11% chance of sucking out on me. Well, yes, you guessed it—the river was one of the two 7s left in the deck, my opponent had trips, and I was busted. It was the last straw in a haystack full of them in a day filled with suck-outs, and I stood up, threw my cards on the table, and uncharacteristically exclaimed, “F*** man, f***ing river.”

That sentiment united me with Angel Guillen, Tim McDonald and every poker player who’s ever seen a hand through. F***ing river. But we come right back and keep on playing, because in poker, the right decision sometimes leads to the wrong outcome, and vice versa. You just need to think of the long run and keep on doing the right thing. Indeed, that’s something the Bhagwad Gita could tell you. The lessons we learn in poker are lessons we would do well to apply in life—so shuffle up and deal.

Previously on Viewfinder

Beauty and the Art of Winning

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 July, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Sport | Viewfinder


IPL Pipeline

I misread this headline, and thought that the IPL authorities are talking with Iran about a feeder system for young Iranian cricketers. Wouldn’t that have totally outdone anything Lalit Modi has done in the past?

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 July, 2010 in Miscellaneous | News | Sport


Beauty and the Art of Winning

This is the 11th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was posted on July 8.

A few months ago, a friend and I had an argument about Roger Federer. Both of us are Federer fans, and the argument wasn’t about his greatness. Instead, it was about a parameter of that greatness. Federer, my friend said, was the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in his sport partly because his tennis was so beautiful. His aesthetic appeal was a key part of his GOATness.

I disagreed. No one would deny that Federer plays beautiful tennis—but sport is about winning or losing. To be considered great, you have to win a hell of a lot. To be considered GOAT, you have to win more than anyone else, and achieve dominance in your era. Federer fulfills all these criteria, his record against Rafael Nadal notwithstanding. The beauty is a perk.

GOATs of other sports—a phrase I never thought I’d use, by the way—weren’t all pretty. (Don Bradman was thought of by some as being unorthodox and even ugly.) Also, beauty is necessarily subjective, and I know people who find Nadal’s tennis prettier than Federer’s. (Fellow Yahoo! columnist Jai Arjun Singh, for example, mentioned in an email conversation once that he found “genuine artistry in some of Nadal’s cross-court play and running forehands.”) To some, form follows function, and the beautiful player is the effective one. Also, perceptions of beauty vary depending on one’s understanding of the sport as well as one’s approach towards it. As a teenage chess player, for example, I found great beauty in some of the explosive tactical play of Mikhail Tal—but as I grew older, found a more enduring grace in the subtle positional machinations, in seemingly quiet positions, of the likes of Anatoly Karpov. Beauty depends.

I thought of beauty in sport, of course, because of the ongoing football World Cup. This is one game where debates about beauty and efficiency are old hat, and it is almost fashionable to bemoan the death of artistry at the altar of results. The teams we remember with the greatest fondness are the ones that gave us beautiful football—Brazil in 1982, for example. But they weren’t necessarily the teams that won World Cups, who were sometimes uninspiring and ugly, such as Germany in 1990. This is inevitable—we associate beauty with an open game, with players given the space and the canvas to display their artistry, but in the modern game, no good team will give an opposing player that space. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in his excellent book Inverting the Pyramid, “The dribbling technique of Garrincha or Stanley Matthews doesn’t exist in today’s game, not because the skills have been lost, but because no side would ever give them the three or four yards of acceleration room they needed before their feints became effective.”

Modern football is about pressing for the ball, about controlling space, about formation. Brazil’s team of 1970 was perhaps the last great team of the pre-modern age. Football like that, beautiful as it was, would not win World Cups today. In his book, Wilson pointed to the Brazil-Italy match of 1982 as the day “a certain naivete in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible to simply to get the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won. There was still a place for great individual attacking talents, but they had to be incorporated into something knowing, had to be protected and covered for.”

Diego Maradona, as a coach in this World Cup, seemed a throwback in the sense that he seemed to “simply to get the best players and allow them to get on with it.” It’s ironic, because in 1986 he helped Argentina win the World Cup under a coach who believed in efficiency over beauty. Carlos Bilardo summed up the modern ethic when he said: “Football is played to win… Shows are for the cinema, for theatre.” (The quote is from Wilson’s book.)

Perceptions of beauty change with the times, of course. I watched Spain’s semi-final win against Germany with my father last night, and he was disappointed at the seeming lack of action in the middle. I was enthralled, though, by Spain’s pressing game, and the manner in which they controlled possession, and set the rhythm of the game. (Much like Barcelona vs Arsenal not long ago—and this Spain side is more or less the Barcelona side.) There was some astonishing, subtle artistry on display—and I dare say it was beautiful. It was also effective. Same difference.

To end on a personal note, that also sums up my ethic as a writer. I’m one of those who believes that style must always be a slave to substance, and that writing that draws attention to itself is bad writing. Rather than lose myself in self-indulgent dribbles and feints, playing to the gallery, I’d prefer to move relentlessly towards my goal—and if you’ve gotten so far in this piece, I’ve scored. Now bear with me while I remove my T-shirt and do cartwheels.

Previously on Viewfinder

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 July, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | Viewfinder


Football and a Comic Marriage

This is the tenth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was posted on July 1.

We humans are a funny little species. We’re limited by mortality, reside on a tiny planet that whirs around one of countless stars, with a scale and complexity we do not have the tools to fathom—and yet, we behave like masters of the universe. It reminds me of Douglas Adams’s puddle.

The ongoing football World Cup is a microcosm of this comic marriage of frailty and arrogance. Take the wonderful game between Germany and England. Exhibit one: Human frailty. There is no way any referee is equipped to adjudicate on the kind of situation brought about by Frank Lampard’s almost-goal. If the referee is on one side of the goal line, with the ball falling on the other, and he is both at a distance and a height from it, it is hard for him to tell for sure which side of the line it landed. (Among other phenomena, the parallax error comes into play.) The closer the ball to the line, or the further away the referee, the closer his decision will be to guesswork. In a tight situation, he cannot know.

Exhibit two: Human arrogance. For years, FIFA has refused to entertain the idea of using technology in such situations. They have presumably believed that the referees are up to the task. I suppose they consider it an insult to their judgment for it to be implied that the referees they pick aren’t good enough for the job. Well, they aren’t. A referee and his team of linesmen are limited by the human failing of not being able to take in all the action on the pitch at the same time, and even if a ten-headed (and maybe ten-bodied) Ravana referee miraculously appeared, there are some decisions he’d get wrong even if he was looking straight at the action—like the Lampard-Hurst kind of goal.

This World Cup, like any other, has been full of dubious refereeing decisions. The offside goal by Carlos Tevez in the Argentina-Mexico match. The red-carding of Kaka in Brazil’s game against the Ivory Coast after Bollywoodesque over-acting by an opposing player. Penalties not given, hand balls not seen. These mistakes aren’t necessarily caused by incompetent refereeing, but by inevitable human error. (Indeed, human error is inevitable precisely because we’re human.) What I find tragic is that each of these errors could have been avoided if technology was used. Hawk-Eye at each goalpost would solve the Lampard-Hurst kind of problem. A facility for an overrule within 30 seconds by a match referee watching replays would sort out most of the others. Players take that long to celebrate and regroup anyway, so it wouldn’t affect the ebb and flow of the match at all.

After the bloopers involving Lampard and Tevez, and the consequent uproar, Sepp Blatter has said that FIFA will consider implementing the use of technology for such decisions. Like a politician, he is responding to his market, and may forget about it when the uproar dies down. In any case, why on earth should it have taken so long for football to wake up to the uses of technology? Football has been a huge-money game for decades now. There is so much at stake.

Blatter said that he apologised to the teams at the receiving end of the bad decisions. A fat lot of good that does. Had Lampard’s goal been allowed, the score would have been 2-2, and the rhythm of the match would have been different. The butterfly would have fluttered its wings one way instead of another, and the storm might well have been elsewhere. Instead, England is out of the World Cup, and will wonder forever what might have been.

To add insult to injury, someone stole their underwear.

*  *  *  *

In one respect, football referees and cricket umpires are like governments. I often rant on India Uncut about how governments are supposed to serve us, but somehow contrive to rule us. Similarly, referees and umpires are there only to implement the laws of the game and keep it going smoothly. They are servants of the game. You’d think otherwise to see the hubris some of them display. Power intoxicates us, so much so that we might sometimes forget why we were granted that power.

Those referees and umpires who speak out against the use of technological aids do themselves a disservice. Technology is no more a threat to them than an oven or microwave is to a chef, or a laptop is to a writer like me, who hasn’t used a pen in years. It won’t make them redundant; instead, it will help them do their job better.

Consider how ludicrous it is that during a televised match, thanks to technology, every viewer can see exactly what happened on the field of play—except the one man actually making decisions about it. Referees are judged by tools that are not made available to them. That is both unfair to them and a betrayal of the sport.

I remember the time when the idea of TV replays were first mooted for run-out and stumping decisions in cricket. The usual objections were made, about how technology would dilute the human element of the game and suchlike, as if spectators flocked to the grounds to see the umpires perform. Today, replays for line decisions are so much a part of the game that we can’t imagine cricket without them. Also, since TV replays were introduced, no umpire has copped criticism for getting a run-out wrong. I suspect Hawk-Eye, another tool used to judge umpires but not made available to them, will also one day be a fixture in the game—and then we will wonder how on earth we managed all this time without it. (Around six years ago, I wrote a few pieces examining Hawk-Eye, and answering objections to its introduction. Here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

*  *  *  *

While technology can play an important role in enabling a sport to run smoothly, I hate it when technology takes center-stage, where the players are. One of the things I love about football is that it is such a basic sport: just 11 men running around a field kicking a ball, in a display of pure skill and character. The more technology becomes essential to the playing of a sport (as opposed to the refereeing), the less I am drawn to it. Formula 1, for example, leaves me cold. If you switch the teams of the top and bottom performers this season, I’d wager that the bottom guy would start outperforming the top guy—that’s how much difference the car makes. Even in cricket, heavier bats and better protective gear have been transformative—when top-edges go for six, the game loses some of its charm.

A sport I love for the way it pits a man against his own limitations is cycling. The Tour De France begins on Saturday and runs for 22 days. I am looking forward especially to the mountain stages, where the peloton will fall apart and a handful of men will battle gravity and their own bodies to try and survive and get ahead, even as it hurts so damn much they just want to give up, stop, lie down. That’s like life—and thus the best that sport can be.

Previously on Viewfinder

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 July, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | Viewfinder


Match ka Mujrim

This is the fourth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

What is the job of a journalist? An idealistic reader would say that it is to report the news, to put the facts of the world on record. A jaded news editor would say, it is to tell stories, ideally sensationalistic ones, that capture the attention of the reader. These stories are often a spin on the truth; and sometimes they may be outright false. A reporter’s brief is often to turn banal facts into gripping drama—and if there is no easy story to be had, then to manufacture one.

We see this in the way sports is covered in India. You might think that a sporting encounter is dramatic by itself, and does not need embellishment or hyperbole. But news editors seem to believe that readers not only want dramatic narratives, they want those narratives to be simple. (I wrote about this in the inaugural Viewfinder as well.) A cricket match may be decided by a number of complex factors, and the loser most often does not play badly, but simply gets outplayed by a better team. But this complexity does not make for a good story.

The most crass illustration of this came a few years ago, during an India-Pakistan series, when a news channel started finding the Match ka Mujrim (‘Villain of the Match’) in a post-match analysis show. Cricketers aren’t Mujrims, and on most days, even when matches are lost heavily, there may not be any blame to be assigned. In sport, shit happens. But no, it’s more fun, allegedly more engaging, and what’s more, far easier for a lazy thinker, to affix blame, paint the events of the day in black and white, and move on.

Last year, when India crashed out of the second T20 Cricket World Cup, there were the usual calls for our captain MS Dhoni’s head. When there was no story to be had, the media made it up, such as when, as Anand Vasu reported, “Dhoni’s effigy was burnt in his hometown Ranchi, ... apparently it was ‘arranged’ by two channels.” The footage was good—so what if the burning was staged?

The sports pages of our newspapers these days are also full of such nonsense. For the last three days we’ve been reading about an alleged brawl that our players had in a nightclub. Well, as this report indicates, it wasn’t a brawl, and it wasn’t even a nightclub. There was no story in it. But our players had already been painted as mujrims, and of course our journos took that narrative forward.

Another big story of the last few days was about how the BCCI was planning to sack Dhoni from the T20 captaincy. As Prem Panicker eloquently pointed out, it was a fabrication. And it was a particularly ludicrous one, when you consider that Dhoni is also captain of Chennai Super Kings, which is owned by BCCI bigwig N Srinivasan and has chairman of selectors K Srikkanth as a brand ambassador. If Dhoni is sacked from the Indian captaincy, it directly affects CSK’s brand value. Even if he really sucked as a captain—despite some bad tactical calls, I believe he is a splendid captain—he would not be sacked. He could walk on field in a bikini, holding a tennis racket, and he would keep his job. So what a dishonest story to run.

*  *  *  *

Besides the lazy reporting, there has also been lazy analysis. Success breeds enemies, and the IPL has been successful, so obviously it has become fashionable to beat up on it. That’s okay, but to blame it for India’s poor performance in the T20 World Cup, as so many commentators have done, is ridiculous. If the IPL did tire out the men who played in it, or get them used to a lower standard of cricket, or fatigued them with its parties, then you’d expect the non-Indian players also to suffer from it. Well, consider the following facts:

The Man of the Tournament in the T20 World Cup, Kevin Pietersen, played in the IPL. The top run-scorers of England, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand and India were all IPL players. Australia’s miraculous comeback in the semi-final was fashioned by two IPL batsmen. The top wicket-taker of the tournament, Dirk Nannes, was an IPL star. Barring Pakistan, whose players unfortunately missed out on the IPL, every team was driven by its IPL stars.

And yet, at the end, we were the only ones whining.

*  *  *  *

I am a purist and prefer men wearing white flannels to those in coloured pajamas, but I’m an admirer of what the IPL has done for Indian cricket. I’m not speaking of how viewership has increased or how it has brought new followers to the game, both of which have happened, but what it has done for the cricketers. Before the IPL, the BCCI ran a monopsony. Young Indian cricketers who wanted to play for India had only one market for their services: the BCCI, via the state associations affiliated to it. It was no wonder that domestic cricketers were so underpaid. The teams they represented faced no competition for their services, and had no incentive to treat them well or pay them handsomely.

That has changed. The IPL has created 10 teams competing furiously for domestic talent, and forced, by competition, to pay them well. The result is that cricket is a viable career option even for players who will never play for India. A domestic journeyman today stands to make up to 100 times as much money as he might have made 10 years ago—and this is all because of the IPL. For this reason alone, I’m a fan.

*  *  *  *

That said, there is much that is crass about the way it is covered. Commercial breaks in the middle of overs is pushing it a bit too far, even if the irony is delicious that as the Delhi Daredevils lose their second wicket, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag are rolling around in the grass, giggling over a call from Vidya.

And I am so glad to see the last of the ‘MRF Blimp.’ I am told that MRF paid an astronomical sum to ensure that the commentators would mention the blimp a minimum number of times during every match. What made this especially bizarre was that the alleged blimp was actually not a blimp, but a tethered balloon. Also, it wasn’t even there at the venue during some of the matches when it was shown, and the broadcasters used stock footage. Imagine that: commentators forced contractually to praise a blimp that is actually a tethered balloon and is not even there to begin with. Next year, for all you know, they’ll put up a tethered balloon shaped like a volcano, and say, ‘Hey look, MRF has brought a volcano to India for the first time! And it’s in the sky! Hey, did you see that? The MRF Volcano just burst!’

And then MRF Ash will prevent the MRF Blimp from taking off.

*  *  *  *

There also seems to be a bit of a financial bubble formed around the IPL. Some friends and I parsed the numbers recently, and could not figure out how potential revenues could ever justify the current valuations of the franchises. Sahara paid crazy money for its franchise, and are reportedly planning an IPO for the team. I suppose that explains it: it’s the Greater Fool Theory at play. But will all the franchise owners, in the long run, find greater fools?

In any case, the financial madness around the IPL does not mean that the IPL hasn’t created immense value, just as the bursting of the dotcom bubble did not mean that technology wasn’t transforming our lives. Will the IPL bubble burst one day, or will the IPL continue to thrive? I believe both will happen.

*  *  *  *

The IPL somewhat resolves one of the problems with Indian cricket: that it was a monopsony, and cricketers had only one credible buyer for their services. But the other, more serious problem, remains unresolved: that the BCCI is a monopoly.

That is a problem with most national sporting bodies worldwide. They have exclusive rights to the sports they control in the jurisdictions they function in, and that brings with it all the ills of an unfree market. There is no competition to hold them accountable.

In other countries, there are multiple sports that compete with each other for attention, and that can keep the sports bodies honest. But India is effectively a one-sport country. So the BCCI does exactly as it pleases, and much of it is unsavoury. To take just one example, the way it bullied the ICL, and messed with its players lives, was disgraceful. This is a problem, though, that has no solution.

The BCCI is not run on taxpayers’ money—so it’s not accountable to us. It is not a public limited company, and has no shareholders to answer to. The only stakeholders with any control over it are the state associations who elect its office bearers, and their incentives are aligned with continuing the status quo.

In other words, the BCCI is the Match ka Mujrim. And there’s nothing we can do about it, because without this mujrim, we don’t have a match.

Previously on Viewfinder

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 May, 2010 in India | Journalism | Media | Sport | Viewfinder


No Curfews

There’s a fantastic interview of Ian Chappell up on Cricinfo, by Harsha Bhogle, in which Chappell says that when he was captain of Australia he never imposed a curfew on his players.

Why do I need to have curfews when you have got the selectors?

I wish our captain and our media learned a lesson from this. We make excuses for our players under-performing by saying they party too much, or they spend their time shooting for commercials instead of practising, or they’re not committed or fit enough, and so on and on. Well, why go into all that? Why not keep it simple and just look at their performances?

As long as they’re performing, they stay in the side. What they do off the field is nobody’s business.

When they stop performing, they get dropped. What they do off the field is still nobody’s business.

No excuses, no gossip. Keep it simple. Performance.

Think it’ll happen?

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2010 in India | Sport


Don’t Blame the IPL

India’s exit from the T20 World Cup has been blamed by many people, from current players to former players to the media to Ashton Kutcher on Twitter, on the IPL. Allegedly, the players played too much cricket, went to too many parties, and/or the low standard of the IPL softened them up too much.

Ah well. Consider this: As Australia march into the final without losing a game, their top five run scorers in the tournament happen to have played the IPL. So did their top wicket-taker. They will play England in the final, and England’s top run scorer also played the IPL. England beat Sri Lanka in the semi final, and Sri Lanka’s top scorer and top wicket-taker also played in the IPL. Barring Pakistan, whose players were unfortunately not part of this IPL, every major team was driven by its IPL stars.

They’re not whining. Why are we?

*

Here are the stats for the tournament: Batsmen. Bowlers.

*

And no, Ashton Kutcher did not tweet about it. But you were about to hop over and check, weren’t you?

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2010 in India | Sport


The Man with the Maruti 800

This is the third installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

About 20 years ago, when I was in standard XI or XII, I qualified to play in a state-level chess tournament for schoolkids in Sholapur. I was part of the Pune contingent, and the school championships covered practically every other sport played in India—though chess was a first that year. When my team of four players landed up the day before the event began, we were shown into a large hall and told we’d be sleeping there for the night, with many of the other athletes and sportsmen who had shown up. About 60 people could have fit in it in normal circumstances. There were more than 100 of us. No bedding was provided, part of the floor was wet (leakage from somewhere), and sleep didn’t come easy.

The next morning, we found that the toilet facilities intended for us amounted to a small shed outside the building that had three or four cubicles in it. Inevitably, fights broke out in the rush to use it. There were judokas, wrestlers, weightlifters and shot-putters around. As you’d expect, we chess players had to learn to control our bowel movements.

I came third, and qualified for the nationals. Bizarrely, it coincided with my final exams, as it must have for many of the schoolkids who qualified. I did not go.

The regular age-group tournaments that the national chess federation organised were not much better. I represented Maharashtra once in the national junior championship (under-20), in 1992 or 1993, and the tournament was held in Vijaywada in the peak of summer. ‘It is so hot here,’ a local friend told me, ‘that crows drop down dead in summer.’ The electricity, which was variable, went off one day before the round began. I was drawn to play a player I respected hugely for his theoretical knowledge, though I felt that once you leave theory out of it, I was better than him. So, to take him out of his opening repertoire, I played 1. b4—the Orangutan opening. He arrived late at the table, took one look at the board and burst out laughing. The sweat poured down my face, and my head throbbed. I lost that game, finished lower in the tournament than I’d expected, and retired from chess at the age of 19.

I don’t blame my early departure from the game on outside circumstances. It was evident to me that I wasn’t good enough to play the game at a higher level, and I will always cherish the memories I have, including the time I beat a future grandmaster (I was 18, he was 15, but already considered a prodigy; I still remember the spectacular rook sacrifice I unleashed, leading to mate in four.) I also made significant pocket money in college as a chess hustler, but that’s a tale for another day.

Why I relate these stories, though, is to give a sense of how hard it was to make it in any Indian sport apart from cricket. Most of those sports are run by the government, and I don’t need to elaborate on the inevitable inefficiencies that result, and the hardships and bureaucracy that young sportspeople have to battle. You always feel that you’re fighting against the system, and whatever you achieve is in spite of it. I cannot stress this enough: To just survive the damn system, to keep playing the sport you love through years of this crap, you have to be made of stern stuff.

To actually come out of this and excel at the international level: that’s a whole different deal. To those guys: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

* * * *

For chess players, it was hard for another reason. Back then, in the pre-internet, pre-liberalisation days, it was impossible to stay in touch with the cutting edge of chess knowledge. Chess books beyond basic ones were hard to come by; and were treasured when they did, even if they were outdated. And while all local players were bound by pretty much the same limitations, when Indians moved on to international chess, they were hopelessly behind in terms of knowledge and training.

One of my friends, Devangshu Datta, played chess at the national and international levels in the 1980s. Over an email conversation, which I quote with permission, he described how the barriers for Indian chess players were “absolutely mountainous.”

“To put it bluntly,” he wrote, “when I started playing East Europeans, the difference in ‘chess culture’ was stark. We knew so much less, it wasn’t funny. To take an analogy, it was like putting a bunch of talented kids with a basic knowledge of, say, self-taught HSC level maths into direct competition with people who had post-grad math degrees.

“We’d struggle through the opening and hit the middle game and start wondering what to do, then in the post-mortem, the opponent would say, ‘Oh, my trainer AN Other taught us that with this structure you have to play this way,’ and you’d be like, ‘Shit.’”

It was around that time that Viswanathan Anand broke through to establish himself as one of the best players in the world, and a potential successor to the great Garry Kasparov. This week he successfully defended his World Championship title against Veselin Topalov. His achievements, which I do not need to summarise, are greater than they would have been if they belonged to a Russian or East European player. They are beyond stupendous. In the context of where he came from, it’s like a guy takes a Maruti 800 into a Formula 1 race and wins the championship. That guy, frankly, is more than just the best driver in the world.

* * * *

After Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in that classic chess match of 1972, interest in chess in the US spurted. I suspect Anand’s achievements will have a similar effect in India. The live coverage of his match against Topalov was eagerly followed on Twitter, with near-live commentary being produced by some tweeters. For a chess player, the precision of his play in some of the games, like the last one, was breathtaking. But even for non-chess players unaware of the nuances, the match was dramatic and compelling. As I write these words, the day after his win, the newspapers and TV channels are full of him. Chess, amazingly enough, might just be on its way to becoming a spectator sport in India.

And what a time to be a young chess player in India. As Devangshu told me, “Until 1993, India had to wait an extra 4-6 weeks for Informant, a paper digest of, say, the 1000 best games played in the past quarter (many annotated by the players) to arrive from Belgrade. The East Europeans got it on day one. Now you get them instantaneously as they’re played. We get the annotated versions as quickly as anybody else, and I have home analysis of nearly the same calibre and quality as Anand does. You have free chess engines available that are as strong as the world champion or stronger in many respects. Plus, all the material is digital and includes depth of annotation that was unimaginable.”

Also, needless to say, playing chess competitively requires little investment in equipment, unlike other sports. (A chess set is all you need to start, and later a chess clock and an internet connection.) You aren’t dependent on the government any more. You have all the resources you need—and if you watched Anand at work this week, you also have the inspiration. For this reason, I expect India to produce a wave of strong chess players in the years to come.

Who knows, one of them may even win the World Championship someday. But it won’t be as big a deal as this. Anand is special.

Previously on Viewfinder:

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2010 in India | Personal | Sport | Viewfinder


On Allrounders (and All-Time XIs)

There are three kinds of allrounders in cricket.

No. 1: The player who can command his place as a specialist in the side in both batting and bowling. This kind of allrounder is hugely rare. Garry Sobers was one; maybe Keith Miller at his peak; among Indians, Vinoo Mankad qualifies.  Of the quartet of the 1980s, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee would not have got in as specialist batsman; and while Imran Khan was good enough to be a specialist in either discipline, his batting peak came after he had declined considerably as a bowler. In recent times, Jacques Kallis was one, but his bowling has declined since.

No. 2: The player who can command his place as a specialist batsman or bowler, but while he’s a worthy part-timer in the other discipline, would not command his place for that alone. Most people you call allrounders today fall in this category. Kallis has slipped into this category, and Shane Watson also fits in here. Shahid Afridi was one, though his bowling seems to have gotten worse. Among Indians, Irfan Pathan was one, till his bowling fell away just as his batting improved.

No. 3: The player who would not get in the side as either a specialist batsman or bowler, but who does both well enough for their combined value to get him into a weak side. India had some such ‘bits-and-pieces’ players in the 1980s (remember Kirti Azad?) and New Zealand had some in the 1990s. But against top-quality opposition, the bits-and-pieces allrounder will usually deliver in neither discipline, and will be a liability to the side.

Well, the reason I’m going over this is that in the current side, India have one player in the third category. I don’t believe Ravindra Jadeja would be in the Indian side as either a specialist batsman or a specialist bowler. We saw his limitations as a batsman when MS Dhoni sent him out to bat earlier than he should have in the game against England in the 2009 T20 World Cup, and the balls he ate up cost India the game. (He made 25 off 35.) We saw his limitations as a bowler today, when he was hit for six off six consecutive balls—Watson pumping the last three of his first over, and David Warner laying into him on the first three of his next. To add to this, he got himself run out with a ridiculously lazy piece of running between the wickets, ambling diagonally across the pitch. Like, really.

Jadeja is good enough to play in the IPL, where the standard of cricket is not so high and he will add value to any team. But I don’t believe he is international material, and it is shocking that he kept out a player like Rohit Sharma in the earlier games of this World Cup. We may just have learnt an important lesson today—but is it already too late?

*

The question can be asked, which category does Yusuf Pathan fall into? He is not good enough to play as a specialist bowler, but does he cut it as a batsman? I think the jury’s out on that. He is a phenomenal striker of spin bowling and medium-pace bowling—but has yet to prove himself against quality fast bowling. He had a good chance to get set in today and establish himself in the side—and he muffed it.

*

If we consider a wicketkeeper-batsman an allrounder by virtue of his performing in two disciplines, then we are fortunate to have seen Adam Gilchrist play in our lifetimes. He was both a great batsman and a top-flight wicketkeeper, and walks into my all time XI. In recent years, Mark Boucher, at his peak, could have played as either a specialist batsman or a specialist wicketkeeper. And I believe Mahendra Singh Dhoni also falls in that category. Yes, even in Test cricket, where the captaincy seems to have done him much good—he averages 71.8 as captain, in 13 Tests. That’s off the charts.

*

Since I mentioned my all-time XI, just for kicks, here it is: 1. Hobbs, 2. Gavaskar, 3. Bradman*, 4.Viv Richards, 5 Headley, 6. Sobers, 7. Gilchrist+, 8. Akram, 9. Warne, 10. Lillee, 11. Muralitharan.

On a different day, I’d probably give you a different XI. Nos. 5 and 10 are the ones always in question, and I’m also tempted to push Sobers one spot up and play five freakin’ specialist bowlers. Just imagine. Even Martians with eight hands and four bats would have a tough time against the Earth XI then.

*

I know you’re complaining Sachin isn’t there. How could I leave God out? Alright, then, here’s an all-time India XI, and God walks into this one: 1. Gavaskar, 2. Sehwag, 3. Dravid, 4. Tendulkar, 5. Laxman, 6. V Mankad, 7. Dhoni*+, 8. Kapil, 9. Amar Singh, 10. Kumble, 11. Harbhajan.

Why not Bedi, you ask? For balance. We already have a left-armer there in Mankad. Why not Prasanna instead of Bhajji? Because that damn spin quartet is too freakin’ romanticised. See their records carefully. Filter for matches won; filter for matches played overseas; that’ll tell you the story.

And yeah, we also romanticise Vishy, and don’t give Laxman his due. Compare their records also.

*

Enough cricket for the day. Good night.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 May, 2010 in India | Small thoughts | Sport


Play the Specialists

Among our commentators, Sanjay Manjrekar can be reliably banal, but rarely says something outright ridiculous, unlike some of his colleagues. Well, today he did. As India were headed out to chase Australia’s 184 in the T20 game today, he praised India’s strategy of playing the extra batsman, since the total they were chasing was so big, and said, ‘In hindsight, that’s proved to be a very good move by MS Dhoni.’

Duh, no. India lost precisely because they played that extra batsman. It meant that they played one specialist bowler less, and had to rely on part-timers to bowl 8 of the 20 overs in the innings. Against a quality batting side like Australia, that was asking to be pumped. That was exactly what happened, and Australia got a total that, given their pace attack and India’s problems against pace, was way too high for India.

Some people suggest that in T20 cricket, a side is best off playing as many batsmen as they can, and part-timers can do the bowling. This is nonsense. Bowlers win T20 games, as we saw in the IPL recently, and every team must have at least four specialist bowlers in the XI. Those that don’t will lose—and sometimes get pumped, as India did today.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 May, 2010 in India | Small thoughts | Sport


Nailed to a Wall

The Times of India reports:

Two teenagers aged 14 and 15 years allegedly strangled their 13-year-old friend with a copper wire and then pinned his body to a wall using iron nails.The children were paid Rs 20,000 by a 35-year-old woman, Sabroon,to commit the murder.She was angry with the victim as she suspected he was stealing from her shop and wanted to get rid of him.

Pretty horrific. And I don’t know why, but I read that and thought of Lalit Modi. How strange.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 April, 2010 in India | News | Sport


It All Evens Out

Much to my surprise, quite a few people were surprised when King’s XI Punjab beat the Mumbai Indians yesterday in the IPL. They shouldn’t have been. At the halfway stage of the tournament, I predicted to a friend that Mumbai, then leading the league, would do worse in the second half than in the first, and Punjab, then at the bottom, would do better. And so it’s turned out. My reason for believing this had nothing to do with any deep cricketing insight, but with a simple statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean.”

The teams in the IPL are more or less evenly matched: they have a similar mix of overseas players, national stars and domestic players. (The salary caps ensure that this will continue.) And the format, being just 20 overs a side, that ensures that chance events play a much greater role than in other formats. For these reasons, I don’t believe that any team can ever truly dominate the league—unless they have a phenomenally lucky season, which will even out in the long run—or be too far below the rest. While in the short run the game is unpredictable, in the long run everyone’s going to be bunched around the mean.

So while I’m wary of predictions about specific results in the IPL, I’ll be glad to make a general wager on IPL 4. I’m willing to bet that the team that tops the league at the end of the first half will do worse in the second; and the other way around for the team that comes last. I have absolutely no idea, of course, which those teams might be.

As it happens, I would not make a similar bet for the EPL, where neither of my two conditions apply. (ie, teams are not evenly matched, and there is a far greater premium on sheer skill.) Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the IPL?

*

Regression to the mean also explains the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx, by the way.

*

I don’t mean to say that matches at the IPL are decided purely by chance. There is immense skill involved, and I love the contest between bat and ball that we get to see every day. But the skill is so evenly distributed among the teams that in the long run, it evens out. The X factor that a captain like Shane Warne brings to the game does count for something—but while the Rajasthan Royals won IPL 1 under him resoundingly, in IPL 2 they won six out of 14 games. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 April, 2010 in India | Small thoughts | Sport


Love Letters

Harsha Bhogle tweeted that this story would leave us with a lump in our throats, and it certainly did that for me. It’s about Bob Blair, a 21-year-old New Zealander in 1953, who was on tour with his national side in South Africa when he got news that his fiancee, Nerissa, had died in an accident. He couldn’t go back, because “overseas air travel was a thing of the future, and the boat trip took 28 days.” He’d never have made it in time for her funeral.

The story is about a heroic innings Blair played in the midst of his grief, but that’s not the part that got me. Instead, I was struck by this:

To make matters worse during the tour of 1953-54, letters that Nerissa had written to Blair before her death would continue to arrive at the team hotel for weeks afterwards.

Imagine that. If you were in his place, could you have read those letters?

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 March, 2010 in Miscellaneous | Sport


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