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.
It’s been a long time since I wrote something substantive on sport, so here are two recent essays I’ve written that scratched my itch. The first, published in The Cricket Monthly, is a 4000-word longread titled ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’. It basically talks about the importance of probabilistic thinking, not just in poker and cricket but also in life in general. In what is a cricket magazine, I get in thoughts on poker, probability, football, the free-will-vs-determinism debate and even the Bhagawad Gita. An excerpt:
One way to think about probability is to imagine parallel universes. You flip an evenly weighted coin, and instantly the world splits into 1000 parallel worlds, and the coin falls heads in 500 of them and tails in the other 500. You flip again and these universes are split into units of 250, each showing sequences of HH, HT, TH and TT. You keep flipping.
This is true for everything that happens. Every single thing that happens in this world (or may happen) has a probability attached to it. These probabilities change at every instant, affected by all other events to some degree or the other. So imagine, in every single moment, for every single event, the parallel universes multiplying. You can increase or decrease the number of hypothetical parallel universes depending on how granular you wish to make the thought experiment, but there are basically infinite parallel universes, each of them containing unique outcomes. And the world that you are in right now is just one of trillions of trillions of freakin’ gazillions. Imagine the level of randomness, then, of this world being what it is.
My other essay, ‘The Tamilian Gentleman Who Took On The World’, was part of ESPN.in’s series of The Top 20 Moments in Indian Sport. Vishy Anand winning the undisputed chess world championship in 2007 was ranked No. 4 by ESPN, though I would place it at the top. Being a chess lover, I’m obviously biased, but I’d hope that after reading my piece, which is about the context of Anand’s remarkable achievement, you will agree with me!
How do we choose our sporting heroes? I believe they are born in three ways. One, at a primal level, we pick them on the basis of tribalism. We support someone because they are doing well for the club or country we support, and that is reason enough. Two, we like them for their specific skills in a game that we love. The elegance of a Federer, the technical finesse of a Dravid, and so on. Three, we like them for reasons that go beyond the sport. Maybe their story evokes something personal in us. Maybe we are drawn to them because we are a species that understands the world through stories, and there is something universal about their journey that goes beyond the sport.
Muhammad Ali, who died a few days ago, transcended boxing. His life was so deeply intertwined with American history in the 1960s and ‘70s that to immerse yourself in the story of the man would be to understand the history of the nation. His journey encapsulated the essential conflicts of his times to such a degree that his sporting achievements almost didn’t matter.
Ali was born Cassius Clay, named after a 19th century abolitionist who defied the dominant narratives of his times. So did Ali. He did this, first, with regard to the way he boxed. Heavyweight boxers were supposed to be men of heft and power, but Ali subverted expectations by being a big man who danced around the ring with balletic grace, who could turn a brawl into an artistic display. His model was the welterweight (and later middleweight) Sugar Ray Robinson, a much smaller man. Boxing pundits didn’t take the young Clay seriously. The iconic sports writer AJ Liebling described him after his Olympic Gold win in Rome 1960 as ‘attractive but not probative’, and later dissed him as ‘Mr Swellhead Bigmouth Poet’. He was such an underdog in his first World Championship match against Sonny Liston in 1964 that his team found out which hospital had the best emergency room and mapped out the quickest route there from the venue. They thought Liston might kill him.
But the narratives that really mattered had nothing to do with boxing style, and he subverted them too. Boxing was a gladiatorial sport in America in the 50s and 60s, run by the mob, and many top boxers, usually black, like Liston, were virtually owned by the mob. Audiences needed palatable, simple narratives as packaging for the sport: Liston vs Patterson, for example, was sold as a fight between ‘Bad Negro’ and ‘Good Negro’, with one man (Liston) an uncivilised brute, feeding into racist fears of the archetypal black savage, and the other (Patterson) a sophisticated ‘liberal’s liberal’, as the novelist James Baldwin called him. (Both portraits were unfair.) But Ali would not allow others to shape his story.
Soon after his shock win over Liston in 1964, Ali further shocked America by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Many resisted this, and as if to remind him of who he really was, kept calling him by his ‘slave name’ of Cassius Clay. But Ali fought back. In 1967, he got into the ring against Ernie Terrell, a black heavyweight who refused to address him by his chosen name, and kept taunting him as he jabbed him repeatedly, ‘What’s my name, Uncle Tom? What’s my name?’
His bravest act, with which he lifted himself above his sport, was refusing to be drafted. Conscription is a form of slavery, and Ali refused to be a slave again. He was stripped of his title, and lost almost four years and tens of millions of notional dollars for his act, but he would not waver or compromise. In the magisterial biography ‘King of the World’, David Remnick quotes Gerald Early, a literature professor, describing what Ali’s action meant to him as a teenager: ‘When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honour as a black boy had been defended, my honour as a human being.’
Ali came back into the sport and won the heavyweight title again, and achieved much glory in boxing. Not all of his story is uplifting. He often went overboard with hate-filled rhetoric, especially in his early days with the Nation of Islam, and his disrespect of his opponents, and his trash talk, often crossed the line. This is particularly so with Joe Frazier, who had helped Ali get his boxing license back after his suspension was over, but then became roadkill on Ali’s journey. In the words of the writer William Nack, Ali ‘humiliated and enraged and ultimately isolated Frazier, casting him as a shuffling and mumbling Uncle Tom, an ugly and ignorant errand boy for white America.’ He called him ‘an ugly gorilla’ among other things, building a mythology around himself that was as false as the racist narratives he had earlier rebelled against. (He justified it as good marketing for the fight, but Frazier carried the scars forever. Nack memorably wrote later that Ali had been ‘living rent-free for Frazier’s head for more than 25 years.’)
As much as Ali transcended the sport, he was also a creature of the sport, and the sport is essentially barbaric: one man beating another man, ideally causing brain damage (for the knockout is the ideal end to all fights), a negative-sum game where in the end both men lose. The accumulated blows that Ali took were a likely cause of his Parkinson’s, and as his legend grew over the decades, the man himself faded.
But the ways in which boxing diminished him—and before that he diminished himself—should not affect his legacy. All human beings are frail and weak and flawed in countless public and private ways—but very few people rise above themselves, and their sport, and their times, to the extent that Ali did. He meant so much to so many. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote in a recent tribute: ‘I may be 7’2”, but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.’
Before this IPL started, a friend of mine, who shall go unnamed, called me up.
Friend: Amit, you have such understanding of cricket, do you have any gyaan about this IPL? I want to place a few bets.
Me: Um, don’t do cricket betting, bro, you’re bound to lose in the long run. But if you absolutely have to, because the dopamine craving is unbearable, and you really hate your money, then do one thing: make a bet, at the toss of every game, on the side batting second. Ignore everything else.
F: What are you saying? Team composition, past records, pitch, weather, my gut feel—ignore all that?
M: Yes. Ignore it all. And don’t even watch the game, your blood pressure is a problem, isn’t it? Just place that one bet and forget about it.
Four days later, I Whatsapp him.
M: Bro, how’s it going? Have you noticed that the team batting second won three out of the four games so far? :)
F: Amit, it’s all fucked up, man. The matches are fixed. Just see yesterday, bro, X was at 40 paisa when I bet, and suddenly the game turned around and I lost so much. Such an unlikely turnaround! It has to be a fix!
M: Um, unlikely things are actually inevitable. Why didn’t you just bet on the side batting second like I told you to?
F: Arre, yaar, that is so simplistic. I have been betting on cricket for 20 years. Main apni analysis karta hoon, bhai!
F: But these bloody games are fixed!
M: Well, just keep in mind what I told you.
I call him after eight games.
M: Champ, this IPL is crazy, isn’t it? Seven out of eight matches so far won by the side batting second. When are you throwing a party?
F: Arre, forget party, I will have to sell one of my flats soon. I bet heavily on X yesterday, and Y won! It was fixed!
M: Er, not likely bro, very hard to fix entire games. Only spot-fixing is realistic, and even that…
F: No no no, it was fixed! See, X had a sure win! And the bookies gave odds of 84 paise. Why would they give such great odds? To lure the money in! And then Y wins! Fixed!
M: Are you saying the bookies fixed it?
F: No bro, the game has evolved beyond that. Bookies and punters don’t fix matches anymore. The BCCI fixed it!
M: Bro, that’s a wild conspiracy theory. Firstly, it’s almost impossible to fix actual results. Secondly, the BCCI makes a lot of money anyway, and their incentives are aligned towards keeping the game clean. I think you’re just rationalising…
F: Arre, stop this rational talk. Nothing good can come out of it.
M: Well, I did tell you about the team batting second…
And now, two weeks later, I speak to him again.
M: Dude, it’s 13 out of 14 wins now for the side batting second. What did I tell you at the start of the tournament?
F: Arre, forget all that, you won’t believe how hard I’m getting banged. My ass should be renamed National Highway 420. I’m telling you, it’s all fixed. I should never have bet a single paisa!
M: Er, well, look, I did tell you…
F: I hate cricket. I’m going to Bangkok for some decleansing. I need to get some detoxing done.
So there it is. My friend will never wake up and see the light, but the weird thing is that many pundits and cricket managements aren’t doing that either. It is a fact that 13 out of 14 games have been won by the side batting second. Not just that, they have been won easily, in an average of 17.2 overs and with an average 6.6 wickets an hand. Why is this happening?
I have speculated on this in an earlier post, but forget all speculation, there is one obvious conclusion to be drawn: teams batting first are consistently underestimating the par score.
In my column before the IPL, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Economics’, I had pointed out that many sides do not understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. Basically, they need to be more aggressive in order to utilise the 20 overs optimally, and attack the bowling from the get go. (Read the piece for the full argument.) Now, some teams get this, and do actually frontload, but many don’t. And they often adjust sub-optimally when wickets fall.
For example, consider this: A team begins their innings aggressively, but then drops wickets. They drift to 44 for 3 after eight overs, with the bowlers bowling exceptionally well. Here’s what happens: if they’re batting first, they’ll reset the par score in their heads, and aim for something conservative like 165 at 10 an over. If they’re batting second, they’ll aim for whatever the target is, even if it’s 190. They don’t have a choice.
Now, it is my belief that many teams underestimate the ‘expected value’ of aggression. The risk-to-reward ratio for aggressive batting is vastly different in T20s as compared to ODIs because the relationship between the two kinds of resources available to a team (players and time) has changed. And because they underestimate the payoffs, teams are not aggressive enough while batting first. While batting second, though, they often don’t have a choice but to be appropriately aggressive.
This is not the only factor in play, of course—the strength of a side’s bowling attack matters, as do local conditions on any given day. But all of those are largely toss-agnostic. This mindset is not.
Despite my explanation, this streak is an outlier, and I don’t see it continuing: I will be very surprised if 13 of the next 14 games are won by the side batting second. However, I do see this trend continuing. Sides batting second should win more than sides batting first. And when sides batting first do win, it will be because they frontloaded, as RCB did in game 4, and Gujarat Lions try in every game.
Please don’t put your money on it, though. Anyone who bets on cricket is a long-term loser. I’m serious.
This is the truth that an increasing number of people seem to be realizing, but not so many within the establishment of the game.
This is one reason for the toss being so important in this tournament. The best sides preferred to bat second [in the T20 World Cup], and batting second severely limits the degree to which sides can convince themselves that this sort of batting is appropriate.
This was the day before the IPL began. And now, one week later, the side batting second has won five of the six games so far. (In the one game that the side batting first won, they put up 227, frontloading most pleasingly.)
This is a small sample size, so I won’t force any conclusions upon you, but Prabhat’s insight does seem to hold some food for thought.
I haven’t been watching the games too closely, but one thing I have noticed is that Mumbai Indians are frontloading intent but not talent. Basically, they are attacking from the start, as they should, but taking a pinch-hitting approach by sending out guys like Hardik Pandya and Mitchell McClenaghan at 3 and 4, as in their last game, keeping higher quality hitters like Jos Buttler and Kieron Pollard for later. I’m not sure what to make of this.
At the moment, the teams I find most impressive are those that are frontloading both intent and talent. RCB have Gayle-Kohli-ABD at the top and Gujarat Lions have Finch-McCullum-Raina. Both have decent bowling attacks. So these are the guys I’d back.
[W]e often judge an entire community or a nation based on one or two people whom we know. It is called stereotyping. Chess fans in 180 countries judge all Indians, all of us, by watching Viswanathan Anand. Thanks to him they think all Indians are intelligent, modest, soft-spoken, philosophical with a great sense of humour.
Indeed, people who excel in sports often become, by default, brand ambassadors for both the sport and their countries. Because character and sporting talent are both randomly distributed, sporting heroes often tend to be mediocre ambassadors. But Anand was is exceptional. (For contrast, look at the boorish, arrogant way in which the cricketers of today often behave.) We are lucky to have him.
Is there anything that cricket can learn from economics? Over the decade-and-a-half that I have written on both these subjects, I’ve come to believe that understanding and applying the principles of economics can enrich the way we live our lives. It follows, then, that all economic concepts can also be applied to cricket.
This is especially relevant at the time of writing these words, when the Twenty20 World Cup has just come to an end. I was delighted that West Indies deservedly won the cup; and saddened that a number of teams, including India, made basic errors because they did not understand one fundamental economic concept: Opportunity Cost.
The term ‘opportunity cost’ was coined by the 19th century economist Friedrich von Wieser, and its simplest definition is: ‘the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.’ The online site Investopedia defines it as “the cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.” Let me illustrate that with an example.
Say you step out of your office one muggy evening, and have Rs. 300 in your pocket. You feel like drinking a refreshing frappe at a nearby café; and you also feel like taking an AC cab home instead of your normal bus-train routine. The thing is, you only have enough money for one of them. So you go for immediate gratification and get that frappe. The opportunity cost of the frappe is the cab ride home.
Every banal decision in our lives involves opportunity cost. Do I watch TV or read a book? Do I go out with friends or spend time with family? When I choose to spend an evening watching Batman vs Superman, the cost of that decision is not just the price of the ticket and the popcorn, but all the things I could have done with that time.
Understanding opportunity cost is important because it helps us navigate the one fundamental truth about this world: scarcity. Everything is scarce: there is never enough money; or enough time; or enough energy. We have to negotiate scarce resources, which is why all our decisions carry costs. And as the economist James Buchanan said, the concept of opportunity costs “expresses the basic relationship between scarcity and choice.”
Cricket is no exception to these laws of nature. Within a cricket match, there are two kinds of scarcity that a captain or coach must contend with. One is a scarcity of time. The match can only last either five days or 50 overs per side or 20 overs per side. The second is a scarcity of resources. A team can only have eleven players.
Strategy in cricket boils down to negotiating between these two constraints of time and resources. For example, if a team needs 250 runs to win a Test match with two full days in hand, and are 18 for 2 against fired-up new-ball bowlers, they should be more worried about running out of batting resources than about running out of time. That would be a good time for careful consolidation. In contrast, in an ODI, if a team needs 15 to win in one over with eight wickets in hand, they are running out of time but not batting resources. This is a time to hit out and run for everything, and not to preserve wickets.
Every decision carries an opportunity cost. When a batsman shoulders arms to a ball outside off stump, that decision carries the opportunity cost of the runs that might have been scored off it. When he tries to drive it and instead edges it to slip, his action bears the opportunity cost of the runs he might have scored later had he not played that shot. These are opposite actions, and to evaluate which is appropriate in any situation, you need to consider the relative scarcities of time and resources.
Now, here’s where it applies to T20 cricket. Each side gets 20 overs to bat instead of the 50 they would in an ODI; but they still have 11 players! The balance between resources and time has shifted – but many teams haven’t adjusted to this. They apply the ODI innings-building template to T20s: hit out in the powerplay, taking care to consolidate if early wickets fall, then build the innings till the slog overs, then have a slog. This is wrong. It is a waste of resources – and it also allows the bowling side to allocate bowling resources optimally, with specialist death bowlers bowling at the end. What would they do if every over was a slog over?
The teams should adjust to this new dynamic by ‘frontloading’ – a concept I first wrote about in this context a couple of years ago. They should go for their strokes right from the start. If catastrophe comes and four wickets fall in the space of 10 balls, they can dial it back and look to bat all 20 overs so as not to waste the resource of time – but otherwise, they are wasting the batting resources available to them.
The optimal approach in a T20 game is to treat your first three overs as if they’re the last three. On average you will make as many as you would in the last three. Sometimes you will click and the momentum continues. Sometimes wickets will fall, and you can adjust accordingly, and still not make less than you would have with the traditional strategy.
Teams are wisening up to this, and both the finalists of this T20 World Cup frontloaded through the tournament – but India did not, to my dismay. In their semi-final, India made 192 for 2 and the wicket column alone tells you what was wrong with their approach. By losing only two wickets, consider the strokeplaying resources India left unused: Raina, Pandey, Pandya, Jadeja, even Ashwin at 9. Our middle overs were consumed by Ajinkya Rahane making 40 off 35, which was a criminal waste. Consider the opportunity cost: had Rahane been out while on 20 off 18, do you really think that this army of hitters would not have made way more than the 20 off 17 he eventually added?
This is not Rahane’s fault per se: he is a fantastic Test player, but he doesn’t have a fourth gear and this is the best he can do. It’s the fault of the selectors and the decision makers within the team who ignored this key lesson of T20 cricket. (To be fair to MS Dhoni, though, CSK usually frontloaded in the IPL under him.) It is also the fault of those pundits who will praise an innings of 50 off 40 without considering the opportunity cost, and the unused resources in the pavilion.
Teams will learn, though, and T20 cricket will continue to flourish. This is the future of the sport. Indeed, Test cricket might die out altogether, for reasons that can also be explained by economics. As the number of options to spend our time keep increasing, so does the opportunity cost of watching Test cricket. What is five days worth to you?
Hou Yifan is currently leading in her Women’s World Chess Championship match against Mariya Muzychuk, and I suppose this is a good time for me to tell you about what happened when they met for the first time. Basically, Maria went up to Hou and introduced herself.
MM: Hi, I’m Mariya.
MM: Er, Mariya.
MM: I just told you. Mariya. May I know your name please?
MM: Mariya, Mariya, Mariya! Aaargh! (Storms off. Harika Dronavalli walks up to Hou.)
HD: Hey, Hou. Who was that?
HY: Some strange girl called Mariya Mariya Mariya.
Pradeep Magazine is unhappy that Pawan Negi got more than a million dollars at the recent IPL auction. He writes:
Ever since a new cricket format and a new business model – the IPL – in the name of sport has been created in India, this accepted rationale of how sport functions is being challenged each passing year. Among the many questions being debated is the relationship of talent with the wages earned and the impact it will have on the very foundations of cricket in the country.
That is where Pawan Negi and most of his tribe become relevant to this debate. Here is a young talent, not sure of his place in the India team, a surprise selection for the T20 World Cup, who has all of a sudden been catapulted ahead of his much superior seniors and showered with riches — and even he can’t understand why.
Magazine implies that Negi has gotten more money than he is worth—and I don’t have an opinion on that. However, consider the larger philosophical question of who should determine Negi’s value as a player? Should it be the mandarins at the BCCI, or the selectors? Should it be knowledgable journalists who have covered the game for years like Magazine himself? Should it be the owners of IPL franchises, an assorted mix of businessmen and filmstars who may not know much about cricket?
The clue to the answer is to ask yourself who has the best incentives to put in the work to determine Negi’s value. Who is actually putting his money where his mouth is? If Magazine makes a judgment about a player that is wrong, it doesn’t matter, journalists get things wrong all the time. There is not much of a reputational downside. If the Indian selectors get it wrong, ditto, they move on and pick someone else the next time, and only a whole bunch of ludicrous selections can affect their position. If the IPL bosses get it wrong, on the other hand, they lose money. Hard, cold cash. For this reason, the incentives are highest for IPL bosses to put in much work in scouting and analytics, and by all accounts they do exactly that. So insofar as there can be said to be a ‘correct’ price for Negi, the IPL auctions are the closest mechanism available right now of arriving at that. (And of course, econ 101, prices are determined by supply and demand, and you need a market for that.)
Of course, the IPL auctions are not a free market. All players would probably get paid much more if spending caps did not exist. Also, Negi would probably have gotten much less if he was first up in an auction where no team had retained or picked a player yet, and he did get lucky that he came up for auction when there was a scarcity of available players like him, teams had holes to fill, and the demand for what he could supply went up. That’s just luck, and it’s fine. If he doesn’t perform, he won’t get paid this much next time.
An aside: Magazine also says in his piece:
In this bizarre game, where players are bought and sold in an auction, is there any cricketing logic that governs these decisions?
This is a common, and badly phrased, complaint: of cricketers being bought and sold like cattle. But that is not what is happening. Their services, as represented by contracts they have willingly signed, are being bought and sold. It is principally the same thing that happens when you check out different employers to see where you want to work, except that the mechanism is different. Cricketers are not being degraded here, but honoured and valued in a much better way than men in board rooms with nothing at stake could manage.
He [Carlsen] has always been interested in the history of chess and has had the chance to play both Karpov and Kasparov, two legends of the game. But if he could play anyone in history who would it be? ‘I think the top ones would be Fischer and Capablanca, maybe Mikhail Tal, but I think I would beat Tal pretty easily. Fischer would be more difficult, but I think I could beat him too.’
Carlsen isn’t being arrogant, just honest. And here’s the thing: he’s unquestionably right. Chess is actually that one sport where the best player of the current generation is likely to be the best ever in objective terms. That is because the body of knowledge expands enormously with every generation, as do the tools of analysis (and therefore preparation). If Fischer at his 1972 peak met the Carlsen of today, he would be bound to lose. Indeed, I believe he would lose to some other top players as well, such as Caruana and Nakamura, simply because they’d be much better prepped. Of course, if Fischer was born in the same year as Carlsen, it could be a different story. But that’s a counterfactual, and all we have to go by is the games they actually played. So Carlsen is right.
I think when he doesn’t speak of Kasparov, he’s just being respectful. Kasparov coached him at one point, and bumps into Carlsen now and then as a grandee in the chess circuit, and Carslen would want to avoid awkwardness. But I have no doubt he believes he can beat Kasparov as well.
We will find out in March which of eight contenders takes on Carlsen for the World Championship later next year. Whoever it is, Carlsen will be favourite to win. But he does, according to me, have one weakness: his tendency, in poker terms, to go on tilt. Here’s an old piece I wrote about it, though Anand sadly could not capitalise.
For someone who exhibits phenomenal powers of concentration at the chessboard – he is capable of calculating ‘lines’ that are 30 to 40 moves ahead – Magnus Carlsen is easily bored.
I hate to quibble, but Farndale is wrong here. No human can actually calculate 30 to 40 moves ahead accurately. In fact, as a famous study once demonstrated, experts actually calculate the same number of moves ahead as novices do—but they calculate the right ones. This is not a glib remark: grandmasters have a far wider understanding of recurring patterns on the chess board and motifs than lesser players do, and this knowledge is implicit, their responses to it instinctive. So a top GM would not even consider some lines a lesser IM might, and an IM would instantly see things on the board that would escape me completely. But we’d all see the same number of moves ahead!
Posted by Amit Varma on 30 November, 2015 in
[W]e are the Shahid Kapur of cricket though we think we are Shah Rukh Khan.
This is a clever line, and a provocative one, and Aakar loves to provoke. Even his provocative pieces, though, usually contain some insight. In this one, there is none, and the best answer he can offer to the question he asks is one of culture. (“Perhaps [the answer] lies in the idea of ambition and excellence.”) This is vague; it’s also incorrect. I don’t think one can generalise about Indians that we lack ambition or don’t try hard enough to excel, and even if that were true, there would be enough outliers in such a large population for excellence to emerge anyway.
Let me take a shot at an answer. The clue to where our cricket is lacking lies in the composition of our all-time cricket XI. Try and draw one up. You will find yourself conflicted about batting spots (Merchant or Sehwag to open with SMG; Viswanath or Laxman or Kohli at No. 5) and spinning slots (Prasanna or Harbhajan; Chandra or Kumble), but the bewilderment that comes when you consider the fast bowling slots will be of a different kind: not of who you keep out among some excellent options, but who you pick among some mediocre players. Kapil Dev walks in; who partners him. Whoever you pick—Srinath, Zaheer, maybe Amar Singh in desperation and misplaced nostalgia—would not be a contender for the all-time fourth XI of any other major side. Indeed, no other side would have such a huge problem in any department while picking their all-time XI. (Try West Indies, just for fun.)
This is India’s key weakness. To win abroad, we need to take 20 wickets, and we rarely have the fast bowlers to do it. But why don’t we produce enough fast bowlers? Consider what batting and spin bowling require, and what you need for fast bowling. The former two both come down to skill: strength and endurance don’t matter; physical attributes are irrelevant. Fast bowlers, on the other hand, need to have fast-twitch muscles. This is genetic; you either have them or you don’t; and Indians tend not to have them.
This is why we can’t be world beaters in sports that require either strength or endurance. (Even in hockey, we declined when astroturf became ubiquitous and speed became important, and the dribbling game wasn’t enough.) I do have hope for cricket, though, because fast bowling isn’t everything, and we were the No 1 side in Test cricket for a brief while. To use Aakar’s analogy, I don’t think we’re the Shahid Kapoor of cricket: we’re more like Akshay Kumar, or like Govinda in the 90s.
And oh, I don’t hold that nature is everything and nurture doesn’t matter. Culture is important, and is is true that we are not a country with an outdoor sports culture, the kind Australia has. I’m just not sure which way the causation runs.
This is the 42nd and last installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
This is the 42nd and final installment of Range Rover, and I end this column at an appropriate time: after around five years of being a professional poker player, I have stopped playing fulltime, and am getting back to writing books. I am the first winning player i know to walk away from this game – but more than the money, I cherish the life lessons that poker has given me. As I sign off, let me share two of them: the first accounts, to some extent, for my love of the game; the second is the reason I am leaving it.
Poker is a game centred around the long term. The public image of poker is based around hands we see in movies or YouTube videos, and the beginner fantasizes about specific events, spectacular hands in which he pulls off a big bluff or deceives someone into stacking off to him. But once you go deeper into the game, you learn that short-term outcomes are largely determined by luck, and your skill only manifests itself in the long run. You learn to not be results-oriented but process-oriented, to just make the optimal move at every opportunity and ignore immediate outcomes. You learn, viscerally, for much money and pride is involved, the same lesson that the Bhagavad Gita teaches: Don’t worry about the fruits of your action, just do the right thing.
Needless to say, this applies to life as well. Luck plays a far bigger part in our lives than we realise: the very fact that you are literate enough to read this, presumably on a device you own, means you have already won the lottery of life. Much of what happens to us and around us is outside our control, and we would be foolish to ascribe meaning to these, or to let them affect us. Too many players I know let short-term wins and losses affect them, and become either arrogant or angry. This is folly. Equanimity is the key to being profitable in poker – and happy in life.
Why am I leaving a game that has given me so much? There are many reasons: Poker is all-consuming, and impacts one’s health and lifestyle; my real calling is to write, and I am pregnant with books that demand labour; but one key reason is that poker is a zero-sum game.
In life, you benefit when others do too. When two people transact a business deal, they do so because both gain value from it. When lovers kiss, the net happiness of both goes up. Life is a positive-sum game. But poker is not. You can only win if someone else loses, and the main skill in poker is exploiting the mistakes of others.
Now, all sport is zero-sum and consenting adults play this game, so this should not be a problem—except for the fact that poker lies on the intersection of sport and gambling. Gambling addiction destroys lives and families just as drug or alcohol addiction do, and i have seen this happen to people around me. I can sit at a poker table and calculate equities and figure out game-theoretically optimal ways of playing—but where is the nobility in this when my opponent is not doing likewise, but is a mindless slave to the dopamine rushes in his head? In the live games I played, I sometimes felt that there was no difference between me and a drug dealer: we were both exploiting someone else’s addiction.
When I write books, i have a shot at enriching myself by enriching others. This can never happen in poker. And so, my friends, goodbye.
* * *
Addendum: You can read all the archives of my column on the Range Rover homepage. Here, briefly, are some I enjoyed writing.
This is the 41st installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
The next time you are sitting at a poker table, faced with a big decision for a lot of money, take a few seconds off and think of Steve Jobs, naked after his morning shower, walking to his closet to pick out the clothes he will wear for the day. Does he tank over what to wear? No, he doesn’t. He just takes out a black turtleneck, a pair of jeans, and that’s his outfit for the day. Through the last years of his life, in fact, that was his outfit for every day.
Jobs wasn’t lazy or devoid of imagination. He had just cottoned on to a phenomenon called Decision Fatigue. Basically, neurologists have found that every decision you take tires you out a little bit, and robs you of energy. Through the day, Decision Fatigue accumulates, as you get more and more pooped. So if you want to use your energy optimally, the smart thing to do is to automate all trivial decisions, or get them over with quickly, so you can bring all your powers to bear on the big decisions that really matter. Basically, don’t sweat the small stuff.
Jobs did this by wearing the same outfit every day, as does Mark Zuckerberg, thus eliminating one early decision at the start of the day. You could do this by having the same breakfast every day (or letting someone else decide for you), parking in the first available spot instead of searching for the perfect one, and so on. One way to deal with Decision Fatigue is by Satisficing. When I shop, for example, I don’t look for the perfect item to buy, but pick the first adequate one. This is Satisficing: making quick and easy decisions instead of perfect ones. If I’m buying a TV or a T-shirt or a portable hard drive, I won’t agonise for hours over all the different models available, but just pick the first one that seems satisfactory. I’ll devote more scrutiny to big ticket items that really matter—like buying a house, for example.
Consider the implications of this for poker. Poker players typically play sessions that last for many hours, sometimes upwards of 15, which is tiring in itself. They have to stay focussed, observe the action even when they’re not in the hand, and in live games, where such things matter, interact with others for the sake of conviviality. Add to this Decision Fatigue. In any session, you will face dozens of decisions, some of them big ones, increasing the likelihood of your getting exhausted as the session goes on, and thus more prone to errors. So what is one to do?
The obvious answer is to automate. At a beginner level, if you have a starting hand chart for every position, at least those preflop decisions won’t consume energy. As you grow into the game, you can have default decisions for more and more situations. But there is one huge problem with playing like this: you run the risk of becoming predictable, and therefore, exploitable. As you rise up the stakes in poker, you need to start balancing your ranges. This involves a huge amount of work off the table, so that decisions are easy while actually playing. I think of it as akin to a batsman spending thousands of hours in the nets till it becomes reflexive for him, in a match, to lean into an elegant cover-drive against a half volley outside off. Test cricketers don’t actually make a decision on every ball when they are batting; they just follow their reflexes. They have to hone their second nature.
This is why online grinders, whether they are playing cash games or tourneys, multi-table with such ease. Most decisions are automated. Of course, since most of us are playing exploitive poker instead of GTO, we also have to be observant for mistakes to exploit—but even this becomes second nature with practice and hard work off the tables. So here’s my takeaway from this: to reduce decision fatigue at the tables, and to become a better player overall, you need to put in lots of work off the tables. If you do that, there’ll be many black turtlenecks and jeans ahead of you, and Steve Jobs won’t be naked no more.
I saw the strangest thing the other day. Out on the road, there was a sleek Lamborghini with a man in a dhoti-kurta at the driver’s seat. His hands weren’t on the wheel. Instead, he held a whip in his right hand, which extended out of his window, and he was whipping a couple of bullocks tied to the front of the car. The engine was off; the bullocks were pulling the car.
Now, okay, this is perhaps a bit too weird even for India, and I confess that I didn’t see exactly this. But I did witness something very close. I was watching the IPL.
Twenty20 cricket is a relatively new form of the game which makes new demands on the teams that play it. Like a bullock cart driver who has just been given a Lamborghini, the men who run the teams and play for them haven’t quite come to terms with this. So they continue to whip the bullocks. When one-day cricket was born, teams played it much like they would a Test match—consider Sunil Gavaskar’s 36 not out in 1975 through 60 overs, and while that is an extreme example, consider the low par scores of those times. Eventually, players adapted. Even Gavaskar made a thrilling World Cup century before retiring, and par scores crept up until, as I wrote in my last installment of Lighthouse, they crossed 300 in the subcontinent, which was once an outlier score and not the norm.
Similarly, in T20 cricket, teams have basically adapted their ODI approach to this shorter format. So maybe they tonk in the powerplay at the start, then they consolidate and set a platform, then they tonk again towards the end. They often have freeflowing openers, but leave their hard-hitting maniacs, like Kieron Pollard of Mumbai Indians, to bat at the end. This is a flawed approach, because T20 is not just a modified version of ODIs, it’s a whole new format with its own imperatives.
First of all, consider that T20 cricket is played with the same number of players in each side as ODI cricket is: Eleven. This is not a banal point, but crucial to understanding how to approach the game. If T20 games were played 8-a-side, you would be justified in structuring your innings as you structure an ODI innings. But with 11 players, you have extra resources for the time given to you. Your task is to make sure these resources are not wasted, and are optimally used. If the hardest-hitting strokeplayer in the team routinely gets only four or five overs to bat, you are screwing up somewhere. So what should you do?
I’d written a piece after last year’s IPL for Cricinfo where I’d laid out what I felt was the biggest tactical advance of last year’s IPL: Frontloading. Basically, King’s XI Punjab decided to snort at the concept of building a platform, and just sent their hardest hitters upfront and treated every over as sides would usually treat overs 16-20. They attacked from the outset, with Glenn Maxwell, David Miller and George Bailey coming in at Nos. 3, 4 and 5, and sometimes if an early wicket fell, Wriddhiman Saha coming at 3, but also to tonk. Their frontloading ensured that batting resources were not wasted, and this approach got them off to an excellent start in the tournament. In contrast, Mumbai Indians consistently sent out their best hitter, Kieron Pollard, with just a handful of overs to go, and he had nowhere near the impact he could have had. Kolkata Knight Riders started poorly, but then adapted, dropped Jacques Kallis the accumulator, frontloaded the hitting, and things worked out. They also had a better bowling attack than Kings XI, and deservedly won the IPL.
This year has been bizarre. King’s XI, far from continuing to frontload, has reverted to traditional structures of building an innings, sending in Maxwell later than they did last year and even, at the time of writing this piece, dropping him from the side. Mumbai Indians haven’t learnt from their past mistakes, and continue to save Pollard for a dash at the end. They would be better served if Pollard and Corey Anderson batted 3 and 4, in whatever order, with Rohit Sharma opening. But no, they don’t use their elite V12 engine. The other day Mumbai Indians, with Pollard and Anderson mostly at the crease, added 81 runs between overs 16 to 20, but lost because the team scored too slowly in the first 15. What a waste. Imagine if they had scored those 81 runs between overs 6 to 10 instead. How nicely that would have set up the innings. Their chances of doing so between overs 6 to 10 were the same as between 16-20, but the upside of going for it early was far more and the downside the same. Keep the bullocks for later, if the engine fails.
The idea is not just to frontload resources but also to frontload intent. Every side doesn’t have a Maxwell or a Pollard. But whoever goes out there should attack, attack, attack. Sure, if a Starc or Malinga is on fire, play that one guy out. But otherwise go for it. Not only does it ensure you don’t waste batting resources, it also ensures that soft overs in between by lesser bowlers are not wasted. Batting strategies are so predictable that fielding captains can plan how to use their resources well, keeping their best restrictive bowlers, like Malinga, for the end of the innings. But what can they do if you’re going at them all the time?
The one team that has gotten frontloading right in this IPL so far is the Chennai Super Kings. Brendan McCullum and Dwayne Smith play every over like it’s the 18th of the innings, and Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni, two outstanding strokeplayers, follow at Nos. 3 and 4. This is exactly right, and good captaincy. Of course, Chennai also have an excellent bowling attack, which is why they’re among the favourites in the IPL year after year. All things being equal between teams, though, frontloading makes the difference. So when you have a Lamborghini, drive the damn thing.
This is the 40th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
Once upon a time, a poker player went to a Zen master in the hills, Quiet River, and prostrated himself at his feet. ‘Sensei Quiet River,’ he said, ‘I have something I need to ask you. I am a poker player. But I am not as good as I can be, despite studying both the mathematical intricacies of the game and the psychological tendencies of others. Something is missing. I need you tell me what it is?’
Sensei Quiet River just looked into his eyes.
‘Here,’ said the poker player, whipping out his smartphone. ‘I have all my hand histories here. Let me play them for you. Please tell me my leaks.’ He switched on the hand replayer on his phone and held it up in front of the Sensei. But the Sensei ignored it and kept staring into the player’s eyes. Many seconds passed. Finally, the player understood.
‘I get it now,’ he says. ‘The problem is not in the math or the psychology. The problem is me.’
Sensei Quiet River smiled.
In the last installment of Range Rover I wrote, ‘We lose money in poker not because we think too little but because we feel too much.’ I promised to elaborate on it this week, so here goes.
Poker is a challenging game not because of mathematical complexity but because of human frailty. You can master it in a technical sense: you can understand equities, put people on ranges accurately, balance your own ranges, and so on. You will never be perfect at this, but you can easily be adequate for the games you play. But technique is half the story; temperament is the other half.
Even if you know all the right moves to make, you still need to have the discipline to detach yourself from the short-term outcomes of hands or sessions and play correctly. It’s hard to do this: we are all emotional creatures, casting a veneer of rationality on our reptile brains. We get tired, upset, elated, impatient; we give in to greed, sloth, arrogance, and, most of all, anger. Every poker player is familiar with a phenomenon called ‘Tilt’? What is tilt? The sports psychologist Jared Tendler, writer of a brilliant book called The Mental Game of Poker, describes it as “anger+bad play.” We get angry, so we play bad. And why do we get angry?
In his book, Tendler identifies different kinds of tilt. There’s Injustice Tilt, where you feel you are getting unluckier than others, and it’s just not fair. There’s Revenge Tilt, where you take things personally against certain other players at the table (maybe they gave you a bad beat, or they 3b you frequently). There’s Entitlement Tilt, where you feel you deserve to win more than you are, because you’re better dammit. And so on.
Our emotional condition at any point in time can cause us to play sub-optimally, even when we know what the optimal play is. This is most likely to happen at times of stress, and poker is an incredibly stressful activity, because there is always lots of money involved – not to mention ego. We often equate our sense of self and our well-being with the money we have – though we shouldn’t – and having it taken from us can destroy our emotional equalibrium. It isn’t easy, as that saying goes, to keep calm and carry on.
Let me now end this column with a tip. The next time you are at a poker table, facing a difficult decision, buffeted by emotions, here’s what I want you to do: Imagine that Sensei Quiet River is standing by your side. What would he do in your place? Do exactly that, and see him smile.
This is the 39th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
Being human sucks in many ways, but one of its great advantages is that little thing called the imagination. We can imagine away our frailties and pretend to rise above our cognitive limitations. We are all Walter Mitty and Mungerilal, so this following thought experiment should appeal to you. Imagine that you are not a human being, but a computer designed to play poker perfectly and take the money of puny humans. Now tell me: what would change in the way you play the game? (Pause and think about this before you go to the next para, please.)
If you were God, you would know what cards your opponents held and the rundowns of all future boards. But as a computer, you wouldn’t need that information. You would play game-theory optimal (GTO) poker, with a strategy guaranteed not to lose in the long run regardless of the hands others might have or what they might do with them. Most of us humans, on the other hand, play exploitive poker, for which the hands and tendencies of others do matter. Let me illustrate the difference.
You are heads up in a hand, and on the river make a pot-size bet. Your opponent is getting 2 to 1 to call, and needs to be right one in three times to break even. Now, the aim of GTO poker is to make your opponent indifferent to calling or folding. You will do this by having what is known as a ‘balanced’ range jn this spot. Because you are offering him 2 to 1, a balanced range here would have 1/3 bluffs and 2/3 value hands. (Note that the composition of a balanced range depends on bet sizing, or the odds you give the opponent. If you bet half-pot, giving him 3 to 1, a balanced range would have 75% value hands.) Being balanced in any spot means that your opponent has to play perfectly to break even—and if he calls too much or folds too much, you make money. Basically, you cannot lose, and are thus likely to win.
Unless you’re playing high stakes online cash games, you’re unlikely to ever actually need to play GTO. The cash-game poker I play is exploitive poker. I try to identify mistakes my opponents tend to make and exploit them. In the above example, if my opponent tends to give up too often on the river, I will increase the number of bluffs in my range. If he is a calling machine and never folds, I will have 100% value bets in my range. While this is exploitive, this is also exploitable. By deviating from GTO to exploit his mistakes, I offer him (or someone else) a chance to exploit me. If i start bluffing more because he folds too much, he, or another player, could increase their calling frequency against me.
A computer would aim to play GTO poker, and it would do this by building balanced ranges for every spot, starting from preflop, across streets and board textures. This is incredibly complicated, and humans can just come to an approximation of this. This is useful, for understanding balanced ranges help us understand our own mistakes, and those of others, even if we don’t actually intend to play GTO poker. But my question at the start of this piece was not supposed to turn into a lecture on game theory. Indeed, my own answer to that question has nothing to do with game theory or exploiting others.
In any game I play, I tend to assume, correctly so far, that I can acquire the technical knowledge to beat the game. My big leaks are temperamental ones. If i was a computer, I would not feel any emotion, and would thus avoid all the pitfalls of being human at a poker table. We lose money in poker not because we think too little but because we feel too much. I shall elaborate on this in my next column.
One trend that never goes out of fashion is lamenting the present, claiming that things were better in the past. Logically, one would not expect this to be the case in sport. After all, most sports seem close to their zenith at any given point in time. Usain Bolt is way faster than Carl Lewis, Federer and Nadal would whoop McEnroe or Becker’s ass, Magnus Carlsen would probably beat Bobby Fischer. Better technology (including in training) and more accumulated knowledge about the past make this inevitable. The one sport that seems to defy this sort of analysis, though, is cricket.
We cricket romantics still speak of Don Bradman as the greatest batsman ever, of the West Indies pace quartet of the 70s and 80s as the best fast bowling attack, and we still sigh when we remember India’s famous spin quartet. Recently, a poll named Viv Richards, from the neolithic age of one-day cricket, as the greatest ODI player ever. And while batting records have been taken apart recently, including in this World Cup, cricket tragics ascribe this to a shift in the contest between bat and ball, the heavier bats which enable top edges to go for six, batsman-skewed field restrictions, and so on. This is a valid point, but it’s not the whole truth. My contention is that the game has evolved significantly in the last few years, and—please don’t burn me at the stake for saying this—Twenty20 cricket has been a hugely positive influence on the way cricket is played.
T20 cricket gets a lot of flak, and while much of the criticism about its commercial structure is justified, I don’t agree with any of the criticism about its cricketing value. Test cricket snobs complain that T20s are just a slogfest, but this is far from true. Bowlers have been hugely influential in the IPL, and every side that has won has done so because its bowlers stepped up and influences the game. Think Narine, Malinga, Ashwin, Warne. Just because bowlers go at 7 an over instead of 5, as in ODIs, doesn’t mean the fundamental nature of the game has changed. The goalposts have shifted, the parameters have changed, but the game is still a contest between bat and ball. If it wasn’t, the sides would just go out and have a slog-off against bowling machines, and teams would pick 11 specialist batsmen.
What has changed, though, is that batting has evolved to adapt to the challenges and constraints of a 20-over-a-side game. (And bowling has changed as a response to this.) When one-day cricket began in the 1970s, for example, games were 60-overs-a-side and batsmen approached their innings must as they approached Test matches. The traditional virtues of the game were still applicable, and a run-rate of 4 through an innings was acceptable. If a side scored 250, you’d say their batsmen did well, and not that the opposition’s side’s bowlers did a great job, as would be the case today.
One-day cricket underwent a change through the 90s, as sides began to exploit the field restrictions at the start of the innings. Opening batsmen before Sanath Jayasuriya had gone berserk, like Mark Greatbatch in the 1992 World Cup, but the Sri Lankans of 1996 were the first to treat it as a philosophy, not a tactic. The change in approach saw generally higher scores in ODIs, and a knock-off effect in Tests.
The T20 revolution, and specifically the IPL, turbo-charged the game. Twenty20 did not deserve any of the disdain it was greeted with: if we don’t diss football games for lasting 90 minutes or tennis matches for getting over in an afternoon, then why mock a three-hour game of cricket? Cricket is a beautiful sport, and the T20 format offers all the drama and nuance that any other sport in the world possesses. And because of the constraints of time, the format demands more out of both batsmen and bowlers than cricket did earlier. In T20 cricket, you have to optimise. To understand the creature that emerges from this, consider the insanely talented Glenn Maxwell.
The most remarkable graphic I saw during this World Cup was one the broadcasters showed after a cameo by Maxwell in this World Cup. It showed where bowlers bowled to him and where he hit them. Most of the balls pitched on off or outside disappeared on the leg side; most of the balls pitched straight or on leg were whacked on the off side. This is not because he got randomly funky. There was a method to his madness.
In the past, batsmen would carry a mental map of where the field was, and adjust to the ball according to that. Now they adjust to the field before the ball is bowled, and dance around the crease and set themselves up accordingly. If point and third man are up and a spinner is bowling, Maxwell is very likely to set up a reverse sweep, which in his hands is an orthodox stroke, like a cover drive or pull, with a similar risk-reward ratio. It doesn’t matter if the ball pitches two inches outside leg; he’s already decided where it’s going to go. And he plays like this from ball one. In that graphic in question, the bowlers actually bowled to their field; and he batted to that field too.
Players like Maxwell and AB deVilliers, who is known as a ‘360°-batsman’ because he can hit the ball to any part of the ground and plays as if the stumps aren’t there, have transformed the game with their inventiveness (and enormous talent), playing strokes that Richards, or even the recent Tendulkar for that matter, couldn’t have conceived. And they are not alone. Every team is optimising, and we have seen the knock-on effect this has had on ODIs in this World Cup, where, I submit, batsmen not only scored more runs than before, but also batted better. You will see Test matches transformed by this as well. I predict more successful fourth-innings chases of 300-plus in the next ten years than in the last 30. Hold me to this.
Having said this, I would not argue with measures by administrators to tilt the balance more towards bowlers. One could mess around with field restrictions, and I certainly think the 10-over limit on how much a bowler can bowl should go: there aren’t corresponding limits on batsmen. But please, do not say that there is no longer a contest between bat and ball. The two main contenders for the man-of-the-series award in this World Cup were bowlers (Starc and Boult), and a bowling performance got MOTM in the finals (Faulkner). When Mitchell Starc spears in that yorker at 150kmph to Brendan McCullum, after setting him up with two fierce dot balls, you know the game is doing just fine.
A Telegraph report tells us about a study that reveals that more and more men are growing beards because they are “feeling under pressure from other men and are attempting to look aggressive by being more flamboyant with their whiskers.” There are evolutionary reasons for this; apparently, we are wired this way.
You will note, now, that there were more beards in the New Zealand team than in the Australian one in today’s World Cup final. Does this mean that one side was pretending to be macho and signalling aggressive intent, while the other side, um, didn’t need to?
While on beards, a friend of mine insists that beards make men more sexually attractive. If this is so, I shall certainly never grow a beard. I can hardly cope with the adulation I already receive, and more would be overkill.
My guess is that Douglas Adams was a keen connoisseur of Pot Limit Omaha, and he got into the following hand with his friend Richard Dawkins. Adams had T985ds, spades and diamonds, and the flop came K67, one spade and two diamonds, giving him a humongous wrap, a flush draw and a backdoor flush draw. Dawkins potted, Adams repotted, Dawkins jammed, Adams called. Dawkins had AAKKds, clubs and hearts, for top set. ‘Ha,’ he exclaimed, ‘I have the nuts. Take a hitchhike, my friend!’
‘Now, now, calm down,’ said Adams. ‘It is in your genes to be excitable, I know, but I must inform you that your top set is not the best hand here. Indeed, I am actually the favourite to win here.’
‘You’re kidding me,’ said Dawkins, as he looked at Adams’s cards in growing horror. ‘So what percent of the time do I win this hand?’
And that’s the question, dear reader, to which the answer is 42.
As it happens, the turn gave Adams a straight flush, at which point Dawkins became a militant atheist, as indeed am I, but that is not a matter on which I shall dwell today. Instead, I wish to bring up the role of numbers in poker. I have written before on how poker is a numbers game, and to master the game, you must master the math. In my last column, I wrote about the hard work involved in teaching yourself the game, much of which involved number-crunching. In response, my friend Rajat, a keen player with a recent live tournament win under his belt, tweeted: ‘I’m an old-school player, terrified of numbers. What advice for me?’ This is a reaction many people would have, so here’s what I have to say.
The mathematical laws that govern poker, and indeed, the universe, are not ‘new-school’ inventions. Just as an old-school physicist before the time of Newton was subject to the laws of gravity, so is poker subject to mathematical laws, rewarding those who master them. Indeed, ‘old-school’ players knew their math, as you will note from the vintage of David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker (1983), and the musings of Doyle Brunson, a man who knew his fold equity, in Super System (1979). Since the internet boom in poker, the math behind the game has been far better understood, to the extent that a talented player who ignores the numbers is like a prodigious swimmer trying to cross an ocean but just refusing to get on a bloody boat.
All decisions in poker come down to the math of estimating pot equity and fold equity and making the best decision possible. You may use your ‘reads’ and psychological insights to get a better sense of your opponent’s range, and how likely he might be to act in a particular way, but all these merely help you come up with the right inputs. The answer, in the end, lies in the math. And here’s the thing: if you ignore the math, that doesn’t mean the math goes away. No, it’s working away in the background, like the laws of nature, ensuring the survival of the fittest – or those who adapt the best, as Dawkins would say.
If you have been winning at poker without caring too much about the math, it is either because you’re playing really soft games, or you’ve been lucky. The way the game is growing in India, both of these are bound to change. So here’s a thought for you: It is a truism in poker we must not be results-oriented, and should just focus on making the right decisions so that we show a profit in the long run. But how do we know what the right decisions are? The answer lies in asking the right questions – as Dawkins did to Adams.
This is the 37th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
Imagine you’re seven years old and you’re sitting in a classroom where an old professor who scratches his ass constantly is teaching you poker. ‘Now children,’ he intones , as if a robotic app is speaking from inside his body and not an actual human, ‘Imagine you have 13 big blinds in the cutoff and the action folds to you. What is the bottom of your shoving range?’
Someone titters from the back benches. The teacher ignores him and continues: ‘I will tell you what your shoving range is. Now everybody write down what I am putting on the blackboard, and learn by heart for exams. Okay? Learn. By. Heart.’ He turns to the board and starts writing with his right hand and scratching his ass with his left. Someone throws a paper plane at him.
Wouldn’t you hate to learn poker like that? I bet it would kill your interest in the game forever. Maybe you could have been a recreational shark, emptying people’s bank balances in your spare time. But no, classroom happens to you, and you take up stamp collecting as a hobby instead, for the sheer adrenalin rush that gives you. What a shame.
Poker has never been taught in a classroom, of course. It is a recent science, and if anyone wants to learn poker, they have to put in the hard yards and learn it on their own. There’s no university course, no poker diploma you can get, no MOOCs on Coursera, and most instructional books are outdated. Friends may help you, you could even get some online coaching, but if you want to be really good, you’ll have to do most of the hard work yourself. And before you learn how to play poker, you’ll first have to learn how to learn.
One of the problems with Indian education is the emphasis it places on ratta maroing – or learning by heart. When I was a student, I would spend all night before an exam mugging up facts from a guidebook, only to forget them the day after the tests. I believe that every time I did this, a small part of my brain died. And I didn’t learn anything about the subject in question.
Why do I bring this up in the context of poker? It is because too many beginning players indulge in their old habits of ratta maaroing when it comes to learning this game. I know tournament players who will know their push-fold ranges quite precisely, but have never, ever, even once calculated the equity of a particular move. Indeed, some tournament coaches begin and end by teaching ranges for different spots, and while this is useful, it would make more sense to teach a beginner to figure out those ranges for himself. Get the calculator out, figure out fold equity against players left to act, pot equity against calling ranges, and so on. It’s a lot of work, but at the end of it, such knowledge will be deeper than just mugged-up push-fold charts – and as the game evolves, you will have the tools to do so as well.
In cash games as well, where stacks are deeper, you need to work hard at understanding how to play in different spots. Poker is, ultimately, about nothing more than maximising EV. If you don’t spend lots of time fiddling around with tools like Odds Oracle by ProPokerTools, which helps you figure out equities against weighted ranges, and Flopzilla, which helps you understand how different ranges connect with different board textures, then you can’t improve beyond a certain point.
Let me sum it up: inside your brain there is an old teacher who scratches his ass and encourages you to take shortcuts and ratta maro. Expel him.
This is the 36th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
A few days ago, I was shooting the breeze with a friend of mine when he told me about a couple of business ventures he was planning, and the investors he’d lined up for them. ‘You won’t believe how gullible they are,’ he said. ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned from poker, it’s how to find fish and exploit them. And there are so many fish in the business world.’
It’s a good thing I was sipping lemonade at the time and not my usual hot Americano, or I’d have singed myself. Having recovered from the shock of his statement, I shook my head sadly. Poker is a beautiful game, and it can teach you a lot about life. But the lesson my friend had learned was entirely the wrong one.
Poker is a zero-sum game. (A negative-sum game, in fact, if you’re playing a raked game.) The only way you can win money is if someone else loses it. So it’s natural that the key skill in poker lies in exploiting the mistakes of others, sometimes after inducing those mistakes in the first place. It is a mathematical exercise that plays on the frailties of human nature. The game is played by consenting adults, and as your opponents are also trying to exploit you and take your money, they’re fair game. But the real world works differently.
Life is a positive-sum game. This is most eloquently illustrated by what the libertarian writer John Stossel once described, in an old column, as the Double Thank You Moment. When you buy a cup of coffee at a café, you say ‘thank you’ when you are handed the coffee, and the person behind the counter says ‘thank you’ on receiving your money. Both of you are better off. Indeed, the vast majority of human transaction, including all business transactions, are like this. Both people benefit – or they wouldn’t be transacting in the first place.
This amazing phenomenon, which we take for granted, is responsible for the remarkable economic and technological progress of the last three centuries. The economies of nations across the world have grown in consonance with the rise of free markets within them. Think about it: if every transaction leads to both parties benefiting, and a consequent increase of value in the world, then the more people are free to transact, in whatever form, the more we progress as an economy and a society. This is why libertarians such as myself consider it a crime to clamp down on any kind of freedom, be it economic or social.
The positive-sumness of things is unintuitive, and many people reflexively speak of the world in zero-sum terms. For example, socialists, with all their talk of ‘exploitation’, the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor and the need for redistribution. But that is not how the world works; it is not a game of poker. Just as in poker there is no possibility of a Double Thank You Moment, in life, we can all be sharks.
So much for learning the wrong lesson from poker. What does poker teach us about life that is useful to us? Well, the most important lesson I have learnt from poker is not to be results-oriented. Luck plays a huge role in the short term, you only get what you deserve in the long run, so just focus on doing the right thing and don’t worry about the fruits of your actions. The Bhagawad Gita teaches the exact same lesson. Lord Krishna would have crushed the games.
This is the 35th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
Some people, when I tell them I play poker, look at me kind of strange. They may not say it, but inside their heads they’re saying, ‘OMG, he’s a gambler!’ And because I am skilled at getting inside people’s heads and listening to them think, inside my head I’m sayin’, ‘Yeah, and guess what, OMG OMG, you’re a gambler too!’
What is it that gamblers do? They weigh up the odds of a particular situation or event, the risk-to-reward ratio, and make a bet. This is not something that just happens inside casinos; this is the stuff of life.
You walk up to someone you fancy and ask them out for a date: you are gambling. You buy a stock: you’re betting on it to go up. You sell a stock: you’re betting on it to go down. You buy real estate: gamble. You buy a book because you like the blurb and the cover is amazing: ditto.
Little in life is certain, and everything is scarce, because time itself is scarce. You have one life, and the smallest decision you take today could change the course of your life. Maybe you have to choose between the PHD abroad or the comfortable job at home. Maybe you have to decide whether to say ‘yes’ to your boyfriend’s proposal when you know he’s not the dream guy, and you’re settling, and he hit you once when he was angry, but who knows if you’ll ever do better because you’re chubby, and you do love him sometimes. Maybe you get a puppy, betting that the love you get for a decade or so will be worth the pain you feel when it dies, as is inevitable. Everything you do, big or trivial, may be worth it, or it may be a mistake. And the thing with real life is, you’ll never know where the road not taken would have led. But you have to gamble; you have to choose.
Poker is slightly different. Poker is also gambling but it involves repeated small decisions with relatively little on the line on any particular occasion. And importantly, you get to put in volume. Even though luck plays a greater role in poker than in other sports or mindgames, it is not gambling gambling: if you’re skillful, you will eventually make a profit. Good poker players keep making, on average, profitable decisions, and though luck (or variance, as we grizzled vets call it) may hit them hard in the short run, in the long run they will end up winners. In life, on the other hand, as Keynes said, in the long run we’re dead.
A poker player can play a million hands or 20,000 tournaments, and those sample sizes are pretty good. You don’t get those in real life. How many times will you enter a romantic relationship? How often can you switch jobs? You get the drift.
There are different types of gambling. There are casino games like roulette, baccarat and craps in which, in the long run, you’re guaranteed to lose. I disapprove of playing those; it’s just giving money away. Then there’s life itself. You’re forced to gamble by circumstance, but it’s okay, life’s a positive-sum game; though one could argue that since we all die in the end, the final sum is zero. At least until then the odds aren’t weighed against you. And then there’s poker, in which, unlike in life, we can put in volume and bring the long run close. So, you, who do not play poker, don’t make fun of us and call us gamblers. All of us are born in a casino, and will die in one.
This is the 34th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
I discovered poker as a grown adult approaching middle age, but I was a hustler in college as well. I was a decent chess player, and used to offer a prop bet to people with the following terms: ‘I will play 10 games with you, and will win all ten. If you even draw one, you win the bet.’ I never made this bet with anyone I’d seen on the circuit, thus guaranteeing that all my customers were patzers, and unlike in poker, the quantum of luck in chess is low enough that I won this bet every time I made it. One of my early victims, dazzled by my magisterial play, asked me what the difference between me and him was. ‘How many moves ahead do you think?’ he asked. ‘The same as you,’ I replied.
A famous study by Adriaan de Groot published in 1946 showed that, contrary to what you might expect, novices and expert players think more or less the same number of moves ahead. The difference in quality arises because the experts think the right moves ahead. Their candidate moves for analysis, in other words, are better moves to begin with. Their skill lies not in depth of analysis, but in understanding the nature of a position, which, in turn, comes from better pattern recognition. A grandmaster will look at a position not as a conglomeration of individual pieces, but in chunks of pieces that form recognisable patterns. He will understand the positional vulnerabilities of different kinds of patterns, and the tactical motifs that recur in these spots. In a spot where a novice thinks ‘If I threaten this piece, he’ll move it here to counter me,’ the grandmaster may think, ‘His pawn structure has weakened his dark squares, let me exploit that weakness and exchange off my weak white-squared bishop for his strong knight on c6.’ Guess who is more likely to win.
Why do I write about chess in a poker column? Well, there is exactly the same difference between beginning poker players and experienced ones. Beginners think in terms of what hand they have and how it connects with the board, and graduate to this from thinking about their opponent’s hand, and from there to considering what hand the opponent puts them on. But good players think not in terms of hands but ranges. They never ask, in any spot, ‘Am I ahead here?’ but ‘What is my equity here?’ and ‘How can I maximise my EV?’ They have a better sense of how specific ranges interact with different board textures, and can plan for future streets.
For example, let’s say you call with KJ on the button after a nit raises UTG, and the flop comes 876 two-tone. A beginner may give up when the nit c-bets, but a pro will usually continue in the hand and take down the pot with either immediate or future aggression, because the flop texture is terrible for the UTG’s range of big pairs and high cards, and most turns and rivers are bad for him. Indeed, this will be practically a reflexive decision for the pro, requiring no thinking at all. He would play this hand better than the novice not because his reads are better or he has a better poker face or suchlike, but because he understands the underlying math better.
Here’s one thing common to both chess and poker: the bad player does not know what he does not know. So here’s a tip on how to get better at both games: play a hell of a lot, and stay humble. The day you stop learning, you will be the fish at the table.
This is the 33rd installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
One of the ironies of poker is that at a nine-handed poker table, all nine players believe that they are profitable, if not the best player at the table. This obviously cannot be the case. Poker is a negative-sum game: the rake takes a percentage of each pot or tournament, and winners win less than what losers lose. Also, easily more than 90% of players are long-term losers, and most of the winners are just marginal winners. So what’s going on here?
I have two answers for you: 1. The nature of poker as a game. 2. Human nature itself. Let’s get the easy one out of the way.
Every game contains differing elements of luck, and although poker is unquestionably a game of skill, the quantum of luck in it is far higher than in other games. A winning player’s edge translates into a profit only in the long-term. Over a short span of time, it is difficult to tell from results who is the fish and who the shark. Losers win their fair share of pots and tournaments, which fosters the belief that they are better than they really are. But their flawed self-assessment is a consequence not just of the nature of poker, but of human nature itself.
A few decades ago, the writer Garrison Keillor created a fictional town named Lake Wobegon, where, he wrote, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” This gave its name to the Lake Wobegon Effect, also known as Illusory Superiority, a tendency humans have of overestimating their abilities. This tendency crops ups across contexts: in studies, people have been known to overestimate their driving skills (everyone can’t be above average) and terminally ill cancer patients have also, poignantly, overestimated their chances of survival.
You will see the Lake Wobegon Effect in poker, as also its sister, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Wikipedia defines the Dunning-Kruger Effect as ‘a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.’
In the context of poker, a player may think he is better than he is because he lacks understanding of the game, or the intellectual tools to perceive his own weaknesses. I see this around me in many players. They don’t understand the long-term nature of the game, focus only on their own hand and don’t think in terms of ranges or equities, are results-oriented rather than process-oriented, and consider pots they win to be a validation of their skill while attributing their losses to bad luck. Some of these guys avoid putting in the hard work to get better, and rationalise this sloth; some of them are simply not capable of improving. This is not a defect in character any more than being human is.
How can you guard against the Lake Wobegon Effect and the Dunning-Kruger Effect in yourself? Here are two things you can do. One, always ask yourself what your edge is in any game you go to. If you can’t define this precisely in terms of how you are exploiting the specific weaknesses of others, you don’t have an edge. Two, keep track of all your scores, and see how much money you make over a decent sample size of sessions. Your brain might deceive you—but the numbers won’t lie.
This is the 32nd installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
There is no term in poker that is as dangerous for the novice player as ‘made hand.’ Newcomers to poker divide all hands into two categories: made hands and drawing hands. If they have hit a pair or better, they say they have a made hand. If they are drawing to a flush or a straight, they call it a drawing hand. This is a terrible way to think about poker, especially when it informs your decision-making. For example, some players I know find it hard to fold a made hand, and never raise with a drawing hand because they ‘haven’t gotten there yet.’ This is fundamentally flawed thinking.
To explain myself, let me present a couple of axioms to you.
One: Every Drawing Hand is a Made Hand: There is one term that should dominate your thinking all through the course of a hand: equity. On any street except the river, equity refers to your share of the pot if every possible combination of outcomes was accounted for. Beginners think of a made hand as one that is 100% there, and a drawing hand as one that isn’t there yet. But if you look at equities, most of the time a made hand just has a big share of the pot, and is sometimes even behind the drawing hand. Consider, for example, that on a board of A67 with the 67 being spades, 89ss will win a pot against AK 52.6% of the time. Which is the made hand, then? What does the term, ‘made hand’ even mean? How much equity does a hand need to qualify as a made hand?
If 89ss has more equity there than AK, is 89ss a made hand? If not, why is AK, which has less equity? Where do you draw the line? At AsTs, pair and flush draw (46% against AK)? QJss, the bare flush draw (32%)? The gutty T8 (22%)? What about AQ (16%), an otherwise fine ‘made hand’ that is a ‘drawing hand’ against AK because there’s a better ‘made hand’ around. Consider, in fact, that AQ, which is 16% against AK, is 83% against AJ and 55% against a range of all sets, Ax hands, and plausible flush and straight draws. So how would you classify it?
Two: Every Made Hand is a Drawing Hand: Unless your opponent is drawing dead after you flop a royal flush or quads, every made hand is a drawing hand in the sense that it is drawing to bricks. Not just that, on the flop, against a drawing hand, it is drawing to runner-runner bricks. This is why AK is behind 89ss on that Ax6s7s flop. This is why, in PLO, a hand like AK45r is so shitty on a 367 two-tone board. You have flopped the nuts – the ultimate made hand, one would think – but if you’re up against two guys, and one has a higher wrap-FD (T985ds) and the other has top set with backdoor FD, your equity in the hand is, sit down before you read this, 7.5%. That’s right, you flop the nuts, go all in joyfully, and win just 1 in 13 times because your runner-runner brick draw is just so unlikely. Your best made hand is actually the worst drawing hand here.
Made hands, drawing hands, these terms melt into one another and mean nothing anyway. When you play poker, you should think of nothing but equity. Whether you have 80% equity on the flop, or 49% or 23%, your aim is to have 100% by the time the hand ends. Sometimes you do this at showdown – but a lot of the time, you do this by making the other guy fold, so that his share of the pot becomes yours. To do this, you need to understand his range, your equity against his range, and your fold equity against him (ie, how likely he is to fold to your aggression). As James Hetfield famously said after a 22-hour cash-game session, nothing else matters.
This is the 31st installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
I played an interesting hand the other day that I would have played differently three years ago. The game was nine-handed, stacks were deep, and I had KTdd on the button. A loose player raised UTG +1, MP2 called, cutoff called, I called on the button and the blinds called. The flop came K72 with two spades and a club. (The king was a spade.) Original raiser checked, MP2 bet, cutoff folded, I called, small blind overcalled, the others folded. Both MP2 and SB are straightforward players, and MP2 check-calls flush draws in this spot, so he certainly had at least a King. Given position and his bet in a multiway pot, he probably a stronger king than mine. SB’s overcall disappointed me, because he is not the kind to mess around here with A7 or 99, and had either a king here or a flush draw. And if he had a king, it had to be stronger than mine.
The turn was the ace of spades. The flush got there, as did an overcard to the king. Both of them checked. At this point, the novice in me from three years ago would have checked back, thinking I had showdown value. But my read here was that my hand simply could not be good against both these guys, and I needed to turn it into a bluff to win the pot. I bet big, and they both folded, saying that they had KQ, and MP2 whined about how I always get lucky on the turn. So of course I showed him my hand, putting him on tilt, and he later stacked off to me. Yum yum.
Well, here’s one of the most useful lessons I learnt through my journey in poker: showdown value is overrated. Too often, we take a passive line with medium-strength hands thinking we have showdown value, so why inflate the pot? But there are two circumstances where it might be profitable to take a different approach. One, when we can bet those hands for thin value and get called by worse often enough for it to be profitable. Two, when we can turn it into a bluff and profitably make better hands fold, like in the above instance.
Often, on an early street, we adopt a particular mindset for a hand and don’t modify it as the hand progresses. For example, we get into pot-control or bluff-catcher mode on the flop, where that might indeed be justified, but fail to shift gears on a later street when it becomes profitable to do so. There are all kinds of situations where it makes sense to turn our made hand into a bluff. Maybe we 3b in position with JTs, the flop comes QJ3r, we call a donk bet, turn K, call again, river T and villain checks. Our two pair is often beat here, and better hands can fold given we are plausibly repping the ace, and depending on the opponent it is sometimes correct to check back and often correct to bomb river. Similarly, in PLO, we could bang the river when a flush completes to get a straight to fold, even though we have showdown value with a set that didn’t fill up.
That said, you should be clear about your reasons in turning a made hand into a bluff, and not do so just because raising makes you feel macho. In the live games I play, I often see players make testosterone-laden raises in spots where no better hand folds and no worse hand calls. Do not burn money in this manner. Remember, it is better to be rich than manly.
This is the 30th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
One of the most important skills for a professional poker player, it is often said, is knowing when to get up. When exactly should we quit a session? Should we have a stop loss? Should we get up as soon as we reach a pre-decided profit? Should we play X number of hours, no more, no less? What are the factors that determine how long we sit at a particular table?
The rational answer to this is clear. We should continue in a game as long as it is +ev to do so, and get up as soon as we feel we’re no longer profitable on the table. How much we are up and down should not matter. We need to think of all poker games we play as being essentially one lifelong session, and the score on any one day should not affect our decision. At any given point, all we need to ask ourselves is: Is my staying on this table a +ev decision? Whether you are stuck 3 buyins or up 4 should not be a factor in that decision.
In practice, this advice is not that easy to carry out. For example, I have a tilt problem, and shift from my A-game to my C-game if I’m losing a lot and fatigued, playing recklessly and trying to recover. Tilt has perfect timing and usually comes towards the end of sessions, when stacks are deep and mistakes are costly. I am obviously not +ev when I tilt – but tilt not only shatters my emotional equilbrium, it also affects my judgement. I rationalise continuing in the game, though I really should be getting up.
To prevent this, I have set a stop-loss for myself. When I hit that stop-loss, I quit the game, regardless of how calm I feel, because tilt could be just around the corner. This is not something I recommend to you if tilt is not a factor in your play, and you make decisions with as much clarity 15 hours into a game and 10 buyins down as you do at the start of the session. But how many of us can manage that? If you do have a tilt issue, and tend to magnify your losses by chasing them, a stop-loss might be a handy tool.
When I am winning, on the other hand, I usually sit till the end of the session. There was a time when, at a particular game, I would play for six hours every day and then leave, because I’d begin to get tired. As I’d mostly win, I got a bit of a reputation for hitting and running, though this was not my intent. So, as a point of principle, I started sitting till the end of every session, and realised that this made a lot of sense because stacks are deepest at the tail end of sessions, many other players are tired and tilted and more prone to errors, and that is when my edge can really turn a hefty profit. If fatigue affects your play, of course, you should factor that in and leave before your edge dissipates and you’re the fish on the table. But tilt and fatigue aside, there are no good reasons to quit a juicy game.
One big mistake I see some players make is win small and lose big. They become taala-chaabi and book their profit as soon as they’re one or two buyins up, but continue buying in when they’re down, trying desperately to recover, and lose far more than they win in a winning session. In his book, Elements of Poker, Tommy Angelo quoted a friend of his named Cowboy Bill as describing one such player, ‘He eats like a bird and shits like an elephant.’ Make sure you do it the other way around.
This is the 29th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
One of my favourite stories about chess has a lesson in it for poker players. A few decades ago, the great Aron Nimzowitsch was playing in a chess tournament when his opponent took out a cigarette case and placed it on the table in front of him. Nimzowitsch, who couldn’t stand cigarette smoke, called the tournament director to complain.
‘He has not lit a cigarette and there is no smoke,’ said the TD. ‘So your complaint is noted, but it is not valid.’
‘I know,’ replied Nimzowitsch, ‘but he threatens to smoke, and you know as well as I do that in chess the threat is often stronger than the execution.’
In poker, too, the threat is stronger than the execution. The most obvious example of this this is the concept of Leverage. Let’s say you open from late position with KJs to 4bb. The button calls, with effective stacks of 150bb. The flop is a dry K74r. You bet 5.5bb into 9.5, your opponent raises to 16. You call. The turn is a Q. You check. Your opponent bets 30 into 41.5. What do you do here?
Unless your opponent is super-spazzy, it’s hard to continue. If this bet closed the action, you might consider calling this 30bb bet – but it doesn’t. This bet carries the threat of a further bet that involves the rest of your stack: 100bb more into a pot of 101.5. So you don’t just have to decide whether to commit 30bb more, but 130bb more. You are unlikely to want to play for stacks with just a single pair.
This is leverage: the threat of future bets in a pot that is growing exponentially bigger. In the above example, your opponent bet 30bb to put you at a decision for 130bb. Maybe had you called 30bb on the turn, he would have checked back the river, giving up on some random bluff he was trying. But maybe he wouldn’t have. It doesn’t matter whether or not he would have lit that cigarette – the cigarette case was on the table.
Leverage can apply at any street except the river, of course. A 3b from a good aggressive player in position who is likely to keep barrelling postflop. A check-raise on the flop. Most of the time, though, you really feel leverage on the turn, when pots are getting big, stack-to-pot ratios are dwindling, and you have to decide how far you want to go in a hand. In the deep-stacked games that I play, I have found that it is on the turn that players make the biggest mistakes: whether that involves calling, folding or just going nuts and spazzing.
The threat you represent does not even have to be a result of your betting in a particular hand; it can arise out of your reputation. If you have a reputation for check-raising rivers a lot, your opponents might give you easy showdowns in position. If the turn check-raise is known to be a part of your arsenal, your opponents, in position, might not bet for thin value or charge you to draw on the turn like they otherwise would. Of course, your threats have to be credible, and against thinking players, your ranges should be somewhat balanced. If every check-raise of yours on the river is with the nuts, then your opponent will know that he is not making a mistake by bet-folding there for thin value. You need to mix it up to induce errors. You want your opponent to throw his hands up and say, ‘Yeh kya khelta hai? Main tho baukhla gaya hoon?’
The bottomline: to constantly pose a threat to your opponents, and to thus unsettle them and induce mistakes, you have to be aggressive. A study a few years ago looked into 103 million hands on Pokerstars and found that more than 75% of them never reached showdown. Think about what this means – and put that cigarette case to use.
This is the 28th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
Poker at its heart is mathematical, I often argue, and everything else is secondary. You put your opponent on a range, calculate your pot equity against that range, estimate fold equity and then make the most profitable decision. But the math will get you nowhere if you input the wrong values. You first have to put your opponent on the correct range. And you have to accurately estimate your fold equity against him. To do this, you need to get inside his head, you need psychology. Although psychology without math is directionless, math without psychology is pointless, as you’ll end up with the wrong numbers.
This doesn’t apply if you’re playing Game Theory Optimal (GTO), of course, where your opponent’s tendencies are irrelevant as long as you’re playing balanced ranges, and the math is all that matters. But you’ll only ever need to play GTO at the highest levels of online cash games. In your everyday poker life, you’re best served playing exploitable poker, looking to make money from your opponents’ mistakes and avoiding making too many yourself. Player profiling is hugely important in this context. The better your powers of observation, recall and inference, the more money you will make in the game.
I’ve been running very good recently at a local online game, where PLO is all the rage. The key to my winnings is taking copious notes on every opponent I play. I note down practically every significant thing I see any opponent do. Every time I identify a tendency – any tendency – in an opponent’s play, I’ve caught a weakness I can exploit.
For example, Player A always bets pot on the river when he’s bluffing and 2/3 pot when he’s betting for value. Player B almost always calls one barrel and almost never the second. Player C loves to float out of position with air and will donk-pot the turn if any scare card hits or any draw completes, and will barrel ¾ on the river if called. Player D goes pot-pot-pot when you check to him because he thinks you must be weak and who cares what he’s repping, maybe he’s not even looking at the board. Player E pot controls too much and never bets for thin value, even checks K-high backdoor flush on an unpaired board on the river, which polarises his range when he does make a river bet, and makes your decisions that much easier.
Once you start identifying these tendencies, they become easy to exploit. Against Player A, I once called a pot-sized river bet with 8766ss on a board of T94TA (two-tone on flop but flush not completing) and my sixes were good. I usually double-barrel against Player B, which is an insanely profitable play because of his warped frequencies. Players C and D increase the variance of the game, but give you tons of value as long as you don’t get tempted to call them down too thin, which can be a leak in itself. And I make thinner river calls against Player E than against others, because while he may be polarised, he definitely isn’t balanced.
The last month has been unusual for me: my bread-and-butter game is live NLHE, where, again, profiling is everything, and most players don’t do it assiduously enough. The biggest mistake a live player can make is to switch off after he has folded a hand, and not keep observing the action and making mental notes. In poker, every nugget of information counts, so I’d advise you to always stay tuned in during a game. Remember, the most profitable seat at a poker table is inside your opponents’ heads.
This is the 27th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
There’s something strange that happens to me quite frequently. A friend will ask me for advice on a hand, and I’ll dispassionately tell him what I think is the correct course of action, and the reasons why. For example, while playing PLO he calls a raise in a 3-way pot from the big blind with 9876ds, with spades and hearts, and the flop comes JT2 with two spades and a heart, for a wrap and flush draw. My friend, huffing and puffing with excitement, bets, the next guy repots, the third guy further repots all in. What is my friend to do? It’s an easy fold, I say, because while he has a universe of outs, none of them make him the nuts. With so much action, the likely range of hands he’s up against include higher wraps and flush draws (like AKQ9ds), as well as sets, and against this range he’s crushed like Yokozuna sat on him. ‘Easy fold, you shouldn’t shame yourself by even thinking about it,’ I say, all clear and rational. And yet, I have found that while I give sound advice as an uninvolved observer, I do some incredibly stupid things when I myself am in a hand, especially when it comes to not folding. It’s like Amit the Player and Amit the Poker Thinker are two separate people. Why is this so?
The term, first coined by the economist Richard Thaler in 1980, refers to the phenomenon where we value something we own more than we would if we did not own it. For example, in a 1984 study by Jack Knetsch and JA Sinden, participants were randomly given either a lottery ticket or US$ 2. After a while, they were given the option to trade their ticket for the money or the other way around. Most of them refused the switch, having come to value their randomly allotted gift more than the alternative. A famous 1990 study by Daniel Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler offered a similar demonstration. In Kahneman’s words: “Mugs were distributed randomly to half the participants. The Sellers had their mug in front of them, and the Buyers were invited to look at their neighbour’s mug: all indicated the price at which they would trade. […] The results were dramatic: the average selling price was about double the average buying price.”
You can see illustrations of this all around you. Ask anyone which car to buy and they’ll recommend the model they own. I suspect that many Apple fans who rave about iPhones and diss Android are displaying the Endowment Effect – besides rationalising and validating their own purchasing decisions, of course. (Vice versa also, though I use Android and it really is better.) I have seen it at the poker table when, after the cards are dealt, a player absent-mindedly reaches out for his neighbour’s cards. Nonononono, goes the neighbour, those are mine, thereby displaying an irrational attachment to them even though the distribution is random and he doesn’t even know what they are yet.
More commonly, you see the Endowment Effect in action when a player, to use an old cliché, ‘gets married to his hand’. The most common leak in the world of poker, by far, is that people don’t fold enough. This is understandable; we’re programmed not to let go. That is our endowment – and we must fight it.
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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.
This is the 26th installment of my now fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
I write these words at the end of a three-week period in which 100,000 dreams have been crushed. The World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP), a three-week festival of poker on Pokerstars, has drawn to a close. It featured 66 tournaments, with a total prize pool of almost US$62 million. The Main Event, which just got over, had a buyin of US$5200, with the winner getting US$1.3 million. That’s a cool Rs 8 crore. It’s the stuff of dreams – but most of the over 120,000 people who played the WCOOP were net losers. Just a handful of people won big.
The poker boom was kickstarted 11 years ago when Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event in Las Vegas for US$2.5 million. He’d won his way into the tournament via an online US$39 satellite, and this fairy-tale story riveted the world. Combined with a glut of televised poker tournaments, like the World Poker Tour, featuring hole cards and taking viewers straight into the heart of the action, it led to poker becoming one of the most popular games on the planet. Online poker exploded, home games sprouted up in every city in the world, and millions of people play the game today. The common dream: to finish first in one of the marquee events, like the WSOP or WCOOP main events, and make lifechanging money. (The WSOP main event winner this year gets a cool US$10 million.)
Beginning players tend to be more drawn to tournaments than cash games, despite the success of the cash game show High Stakes Poker. I usually advise recreational players to play mainly tournaments, because this restricts their possible losses while allowing them to indulge in the game they love. And I advise serious students of the game to study cash games, which require greater skill because of deeper stacks, and also feature less variance. Indeed, variance is the key reason why playing professional tournament poker is a hazardous line of work. Tourney variance is off the charts.
To begin with, the rake in a tourney is between 7% to 10%, which accumulates over time and bleeds you dry. Around 15% of the players make it to the money (and top players cash around 15% of the time), but the big money only starts at the final table, and especially the top 3. Winning a tourney has even been described as the biggest bad beat in poker, because you outlast every other player who played but just get between 15% to 25% of the money. And no matter how skillful you are, to go deep in a field of 1000 people requires a lot of luck: winning more flips than is your due, evading coolers, hitting cards at the right time, again and again and again. If you have an edge that’s big enough to beat the rake, it only manifests itself in the long term. Indeed, a sample size required to accurately judge a player’s skill could run into the tens of thousands of tournaments.
The modus operandi of the online tourney pro is to put in volume to counter the variance and bring the long run closer. (Note that live players simply cannot put in meaningful volume.) The typical rhythm of a tourney player’s life is to lose a lot, get a big score, rinse and repeat. And when those scores don’t come, they go broke. This is also why most pros are part of large staking stables. Collectively, the greater the volume, the more likely those big scores become.
Many of my friends are tourney grinders, and it’s a frustrating life. Unlike for cash game pros, most sessions are losing sessions. With relatively shallow stacks, everything is standard, and most pros play the same way. Once you reach a certain level of competence, you just sit and wait to get lucky. Every tournament, seen on its own, is a lottery. And the wheel, it spins round and round.
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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.
This is the 25th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
The Mahabharata is an amazing piece of storytelling. It was written at least 2400 years ago and it still resonates today in India. One story that speaks to me strongly is of the time when Duryodhana and Shakuni invited Yudhishthira to a game of dice.
Accepting an invitation to play dice with an opponent, using his dice, surely has negative expected value. (One version has it that the dice were made out of the bones of Shakuni’s father, whose spirit resided in the dice and did as he wished. That’s a marked deck if there ever was one.) Yudhishthira gave some spiel about how it was the dharma of a Kshatriya to accept all challenges, but this sounds like rationalisation to me. I think he had a gambling problem. He craved dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that the brain releases every time an addict gets a dose of anything he’s addicted to: a hit of cocaine, a peg of alcohol, a throw of the dice. This makes gambling addiction similar to drug addiction or alcohol addiction. Basically, you become a slave to brain chemistry. You might know, at a rational level, that you should get up and leave, but you can’t stop yourself. And so it was for Yudhishthira. He lost his kingdom, his brothers, his own self, and finally he lost Draupadi. (The misogyny in the Mahabharata is staggering, but leave that aside for now.) He must have been devastated at this point, and you’d expect him to lose all respect for himself.
Somehow, in a turn of events that involved a never-ending saree, a blind king and no dice, Yudhishthira got lucky, and everything he lost was returned to him. At this point you’d imagine that this man, held up as a paragon of wisdom and virtue, would realise that he had a weakness for the game, which was his strategic vulnerability, and resolve never to play again. But no. Duryodhana, upset by the reprieve his father Dhritarashtra had given the Pandavas, invited Yudhishthira for another game. Yudhishithira accepted the invitation. The stakes were that the losers would go into exile, and so off went the Pandavas.
It is that second game of dice that astonishes me. Yudhishthira’s behaviour during the first game was appalling, but understandable: he was a slave to dopamine, and too weak to stop the unravelling. But when that session was over, you’d expect him to introspect and never play again. However, rationalising furiously, he went for that second game. The force of his addiction took his family down with him and, eventually, in the events that unfolded, all the characters of the Mahabharata. (The bloodshed in that book makes Game of Thrones seem like a Rajshri production.)
I see Yudhishthira every day at the poker table. On one hand, poker is a complex game that requires analytical rigour and psychological acuity; on the other, it is a game of dice that can destroy lives. Most players I meet lose money over the long run; but most of them are recreational players who can take the hit, and can control their losses. Many, however, are addicts. I’ve seen fortunes wiped out, marriages destroyed, once-proud men become shadows of themselves, helpless, needy, pathetic. Even as you sit across the table trying to take their money, you sometimes grow to like them. I have, at different times, counselled a couple of them over breakfast and coffee to give up the game, stop throwing good money after bad, to put their lives together. ‘You are addicted,’ I say. ‘Go cold turkey. Give your wife all control of finances, your ATM cards, your cheque books, so even if you want to play, you can’t.’
Both of them agreed with me and nodded their heads. They knew they were addicts. But they could not fight it, and they have both gone back to gambling, for that second game of dice. I feel helpless writing this, but there’s only one way this story can end: as it did with Yudhishthira, in epic sadness.
This is the 24th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
If there is one quality that distinguishes humans from other species, it is our arrogance. We think we are masters of the universe – but really, we are not even masters of our own selves.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the cognitive neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry carried out a series of studies on split-brain patients that are now legendary in the field. One of the treatments for severe epilepsy is to cut the corpus callosum, the collection of neural fibres that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This results in what is known as a split brain, when the two halves of the brain cannot communicate with each other. (In popular psychology, the left brain is considered to control rational thought while the right brain is more intuitive and creative. This is a simplification, but a useful one.) Gazzaniga and Sperry’s experiments aimed to find out what consequence this had on behaviour, and what it revealed about the brain.
The good doctors separated the visual fields of the two hemispheres, and flashed an instruction to the right hemisphere. In one example: “Walk”. The subject got up and started walking. When asked why he suddenly got up and started walking, he replied, “To get a Coke,” – and here’s the remarkable thing: he actually believed that was the reason. Time after time, across instructions, across split-brain subjects, the docs found that the right hemisphere responded to one thing and the left hemisphere, having no way of knowing what the right brain was responding to, would rationalise the actions the person took.
Steven Pinker, in his influential book The Blank Slate, referred to these experiments and called the conscious mind “a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.” Gazzaniga himself referred to the left brain as merely “the interpreter.” VS Ramachandran wrote in Phantoms in the Brain, “[t]he left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn’t fit the model, it relies on Freudian defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate – anything to preserve the status quo.”
Consider this possibility: we do many things, some would even argue all things, driven by forces we can’t control. We are slaves of our wiring, our brain chemistry, of impulses and drives we may not even be aware of. Our left brain, our ‘spin doctor’, our ‘interpreter’, neatly rationalises all this and comes up with reasons for everything we do. Why are we walking? Because we want a Coke. There’s a reason for everything we do; but it’s not necessarily the real reason, even if we believe it to be so.
This brings up the obvious question of the existence of free will, and Gazzaniga actually wrote a fascinating book about this, Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. (Contrary to what you might expect, he actually makes a case for free will.) But that is a complex philosophical subject that is beyond the ambit of this column, which, after all, is about poker.
All the time, on the poker table, I see players articulate reasons for actions that sound just like the bullshitting of the left hemisphere. I see addicts, chasing one more dopamine rush, playing every hand, but rationalising any particular call. (“I was in position.” “I thought I’ll outplay him postflop.” “What if I hit?”) I see them making terrible calls because they’ve gotten attached to their hands and can’t let go, and give silly reasons after the fact. (“He was polarised there.” “He often bluffs, I have history with him.”) I see them unable to get up from sessions when they should book their hefty profits, and ditto when they should just book their losses. (“The table was so juicy, I thought I will clean it up/recover.”) I see players not in control of themselves, and with reasons for everything.
So when you play poker, or do anything at all in your life for that matter, watch out for the interpreter at work. Always ask yourself hard questions, and remember, the easy answers are usually wrong.
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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.
This is the 23rd installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
Last week was an extraordinary one in the world of chess. The strongest tournament of all time, the Sinquefield Cup, the first ever with an average rating of 2800, came to an end. Six of the top ten players in the world, including the top 3, played each other in a double round robin. The young Italian-American Fabiano Caruana destroyed the field with an incredible score of 8.5 out of 10 rounds, including wins in his first seven games, which is a ridiculous streak in a tournament of this strength. He finished three whole points ahead of second-placed Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion.
Carlsen, still World No. 1 and the highest ranked player of all time, didn’t take it well. Through the tournament, whenever he was asked about Caruana’s streak, he made the requisite graceful noises but added caveats. For example: “What he’s done here is absolutely incredible. But we shouldn’t completely forget what’s happened the last four years.” When asked before their round 8 encounter if he now felt he was the underdog – Caruana was 7 out of 7 at that point – Carlsen said he didn’t see himself as an underdog, “because I’m a better player.” Caruana’s streak came to an end in that game, but Carlsen just about managed to hold on to a draw.
To add to this, Carlsen played well below his usual clinical best, which augurs well for Viswanathan Anand, who plays him in a World Championship rematch in November. Carlsen is an impeccable technician, in terms of ability probably the greatest chess player who has ever lived, and certainly the favourite in the rematch. But Anand’s greatest opportunity lies not in Carlsen faltering on the board, but in disintegrating inside his own head. I think we saw Carlsen’s weak spot during the Sinquefield Cup. To use poker terminology, he has tilt issues.
In his landmark book, The Mental Game of Poker, sports psychologist Jared Tendler defines ‘tilt’ as “anger + bad play.” In short, you lose your mental equilibrium and start playing below your best, often making big mistakes. Tilt is caused by many different factors, and Tendler defines seven types of tilt. The one that I believe Carlsen suffers from is called ‘Entitlement Tilt.’
Entitlement tilt comes about when you believe that you should be winning more than you are, and you start tilting because you are being denied your due. In Tendler’s words, “Winning is a possession and you tilt when someone undeserving takes it from you.” So you could be at a game where you are clearly the best player, but the run of the cards leaves you five buyins down while the two biggest donkeys at the table are up 10 buyins each, and even though you know, rationally, that in the long run you will all get what you deserve, you are still upset about the situation. So you tilt, start playing badly, and suddenly you are the fish at the table.
My sense, from watching Carlsen over the last week, is that he’s been hit by entitlement tilt. It was hard for him to watch Caruana dominate the field in a manner that Carlsen believes only he should, and this affected both his emotional equilibrium and his play. This is where Anand’s opportunity lies in November. If he can hit Carlsen early and take the lead, Carlsen might go on entitlement tilt. Rather than stay calm and just play every game optimally, he might let his emotions affect his play. Poker players, when on tilt, move from their A-game to their C-game. Anand cannot match Carlsen’s A-game – but he can crush his C-game.
So come November, you might just see Anand, unlike in the first match, eschew the kind of quiet positional lines that Carlsen thrives in and go for high-risk-high-reward tactical lines to get Carlsen out of his comfort zone. If he manages to strike the opening blow, the gap in ratings and ability will not matter. In the normal course of things, Anand is unlikely to beat Carlsen. But he can help Carlsen beat himself.
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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.
This is the 22nd installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
Writers like watching other people – part of our job description is to understand human nature – and there are few better places to do that than at a poker table. We have captive subjects, sitting in one place for many hours at a time, subject to massive emotional swings, and mostly with their guard down except, once in a while, when they are in a big hand and try to be stoic and impenetrable. Watching a poker game is like watching a reality show, except that the participants don’t display the occasional self-consciousness that a camera might provoke.
One of the things that most fascinates me in long sessions is how people behave differently depending on their stack sizes. If they’re winning and stacked up, they tend to be talkative and cocky and in a generally merry mood. When they’re losing, they can be upset, irritable, silent, sometimes even angry. Although short-term swings in poker are largely determined by luck, winners can be arrogant and advise others on how to play hands, as if their immediate good fortune is related to their skills, and losers can be sullen, diffident and negative. Comically, all this can be inverted within seconds. You could have a 4000bb pot at the end of which the guy who was winning is suddenly stuck for the day, and the erstwhile loser has recovered and made a profit. And snap, their demeanour changes as well, and the arrogant prick from a few minutes ago is now sitting with his shoulders slumped and his lips pouted, and you almost want to ruffle his hair and give him a bone.
This is how it is in the real world as well, for the poker table is a microcosm of life. The psychologist Paul Piff from UC Berkeley recently gave a TEDx talk about a number of social experiments he and his colleagues carried out. In one, they got 100 participants in their lab to play a rigged game of monopoly. Players were randomly assigned the roles of ‘rich player’ and ‘poor player’, and the rich player got “two times as much money,” “twice the salary” when they passed Go, and “got to roll two dice instead of one.” As you’d expect, the rich players started crushing the poor ones, purely due to the luck of the draw at the start. And their behaviour changed.
In Piff’s words, “One person clearly has a lot more money than the other person, and yet, as the game unfolded, we saw very notable differences and dramatic differences begin to emerge between the two players. The rich player started to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with their piece as he went around. We were more likely to see signs of dominance and nonverbal signs, displays of power and celebration among the rich players. […] One of the really interesting and dramatic patterns that we observed begin to emerge was that the rich players actually started to become ruder toward the other person, less and less sensitive to the plight of those poor, poor players, and more and more demonstrative of their material success.”
At the end of the game, when interviewed, these rich players “talked about what they’d done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game, and they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation, including that flip of a coin that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place.”
Déjà vu, some? This is exactly how people behave in the real world, allowing privilege to give them a sense of superiority and entitlement. The consummate poker professional is immune to this, and does not allow himself to be affected by temporary swings, whether they last a few hours or a few sessions. He is always in the moment, trying to simply do the right thing. This is how he gets the most out of poker. And this is how we can get the most out of life. Don’t let success get to your head or failure get you down. Keep calm and carry on.
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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.